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A Study in Smallness: Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses a science-fiction classic

Many of Richard Matheson’s narratives focus on lonely men. It was Matheson who wrote the screenplay for an early Steven Spielberg film, Duel (1971), which was based on one of Matheson’s own short stories. Like many of Matheson’s most famous stories, such as The Shrinking Man and I Am Legend, it is ultimately about the loneliness of modern man. The latter book, in which Robert Neville – played by Will Smith in the book’s most recent adaptation – finds himself the last human survivor of the zombie apocalypse, has tended to obscure the former. But The Shrinking Man is no minor work of throwaway genre fiction: the novel contains great themes and tackles deep-rooted human concerns, especially male concerns.

Matheson’s work has influenced a raft of great writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror: Stephen King and Ray Bradbury are among the greats who have acknowledged a debt to him, with King calling Matheson, of all writers, the most important influence on him. Matheson’s 1956 novel The Shrinking Man is a tense and engaging tale about a man, Scott Carey, who, after coming into contact with radioactive waste, finds that he is shrinking at the rate of an inch per week. Once six feet tall, he is soon just one inch in height and living in his own cellar, estranged from his own wife and family, trying to avoid being eaten by the black widow spider that will soon be bigger than he is. Read the rest of this entry

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Literary Leeds: The Poetry of John Riley

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads the work of a neglected poet

One night in late October 1978, the poet John Riley was tragically murdered by muggers in Leeds, a horrific crime recently investigated in Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’ Deaths of the Poets. Riley’s Collected Works were published two years later by Grosseteste Press, the publishing house he’d helped to set up, but copies of this hardcover volume remain few and far between (I am currently reading the copy from my university library; the stamps on the flyleaf tell me it’s been borrowed three times previously, in 1983, 1995, and 2000). For 15 years, Riley’s poems lay largely forgotten except by a few devotees. Then, in 1995, it looked as though John Riley’s posthumous reputation would be given a leg up, courtesy of an edition of his selected poems, brought out by the poetry publisher Carcanet. But barely a year later, in the summer of 1996, the Carcanet offices in Manchester were damaged in an IRA bomb explosion, and virtually all copies of John Riley’s Selected Poems were lost. At the time of writing, a single copy is available for sale on Amazon. It will set you back just £10,000. I cannot find any other copies available for sale online.

I was fortunate enough, having kept an eye out for one for some time, to pick up a copy of this hard-to-find volume a while ago, on Amazon of all places, not for £10,000 but for just Read the rest of this entry

The Book of Literary Lists: Nicholas T. Parsons’ Trivia-Trove

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle feasts upon the literary trivia to be found in this book of book lists

It will come as little surprise to regular readers of this blog that I love a good book of literary trivia. Having written a couple myself, I know the joy of trying to load every rift with ore, or every page with a surprising fact. Nicholas T. Parsons, who is also the author of a wonderfully entertaining book about the joy of bad verse, wrote one of the greatest literary trivia books for dipping into: The Book of Literary Lists, which first hit high-street bookshelves (when such things were still relatively common) in 1985.

Of course, the problem with literary trivia is that the same facts tend to do the rounds. A few books in, and the reader is left waiting for the same old anecdotes and nuggets to make an appearance. Eschewing the obvious so that such veterans of bookish trivialities will find something new and satisfying, but that relative beginners will still find illuminating, is a difficult task, but with The Book of Literary Lists Nicholas T. Parsons manages to collect together an impressive number of literary facts which were previously unknown to me. Read the rest of this entry