Book Review: Third From the Sun, Richard Matheson (1955)

(John Richards’ cover for the 1961 edition)

3/5 (collated rating: Average)

I have a confession to make.  I have never read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954).  I do not like vampires.  I do not like any movies or TV shows with vampires.  Thus, as is my wont when trying a new author, I procured a short story collection to experience a range of visions.

Mel Hunter’s cover for Born of Man and Woman (1954)

Matheson’s collection Third From the Sun (1955) contains 13 of the 17 short SF works found in his earlier collection Born of Man and Woman (1954).  Unfortunately, the latter costs a pretty penny online while the former can be found cheap.  As with all but the best short story collections, Third From the Sun has its highs (“Born of Man and Woman,” “Mad House,” “Lover When You’re Near Me”) and abyssal lows (“Dear Diary,” “Dress of White Silk,” “The Traveller”).  I suspect most of the collection will not stay in my memory for long.  I will take the 50s short fiction of J.G. Ballard, Robert Sheckley, Miriam Allen deFord, Judith Merril, Philip José Farmer, C. M. Kornbluth, et al over Matheson most days.

…unless I am craving SF horror. Recommended for fans of 50s SF horror and Matheson’s work in general.  Other fans of 50s SF will most likely be disappointed.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)

“Born of Man and Woman” (1950), short story 4.25/5 (Good) is the more effective SF horror stories of the collection that relies on a simple premies and perspective.  Told from the perspective of a young mutant (it bleeds green blood) imprisoned by its “parents” in a cellar.  The creature is not pure evil but rather motivated by unknowing and the suffering inflicted on it by its confused/terrified/and violent parents. A chilling tale told by a child: “I didnt want to hurt it.  I got fear because it bit me harder than the rat does.  I hut and the little mother screamed.  I grabbed the live thing tight.  It made sounds I never heard.  I pushed it all together.  It was all lumpy and red on the black coal” (3)

“Third from the Sun” (1950), short story, 3/5 (Average): A “twist” ending story that leaves most of its intriguing implications to the imagination.  A family and their neighbors secretively plan to abandon their town and stow aboard a spaceship bound for the “Third [planet] from the sun” (13).  Why exactly is not all together clear as the settlement which they are fleeing from is completely earth-like.  Simple, tantalizing, but feels unrealized…

“Lover When You’re Near Me” (1952), novelette, 4/5 (Good):  Another horror story with a more explicit SF background.  Lindell arrives on Station Four The Birds and the Three-Moon Pyscho Ward as some colonial-esque official in charge of trade.  Wetner’s Interstellar Trading Company does not advertise the horrors that await.  After Lindell discovers the diary of the previous resident and how pernicious the telepathy of the women aliens he starts to panic: “God help me, read the note, black and jagged-lettered, Lover comes through the walls (31).”  Perhaps there is a reason why the Gnee men are so docile.  The women aliens on the other hand might be more intelligent (and in control!).  There are disturbing images and scenes throughout.  Recommended.

“SRL Ad” (1952), short story, 3/5 (average):  A comedic epistolary story about Loolie, an alien from Venus, who posts an ad in an Earth newspaper: “Lonesome, Venus Gal, pretty—yes, nice in socializing; tender and gay altogether.  Be pleased to write, earthmen of like fixtures” (39).  The thing is Earth does not know that there are sentient beings on Venus.  And they do not really know what Earthmen look like.  A comedy of errors occurs as they correspond and Loolie decides to visit Earth.

“Mad House” (1953), novelette, 4.5/5 (Very Good):  Easily the best story in the collection that exudes horror and uncanny realism.  Set in the domestic sphere of the home and the rituals of home life, “Mad House” follows the psychotic (perhaps) breakdown of a writer (ad professor) with writers block.  He grows angrier and angrier and the house itself seems to focus his anger and lash out at him.  Over the course of the novelette his relationship with his wife completely breaks down.  Perhaps there is a supernatural (SF-esque) reason for his state.  Kate Wilhelm demonstrated in the 60s and 70s the power of setting psychological nightmares from the perspective of women in the domestic sphere.  Matheson’s depiction of the domestic sphere from the male perspective is equally engaging.

“F—” (variant title: “The Foodlegger”) (1952), shortstory, 3.5/5 (Good):  In Luis Buñuel’s film The Phantom of Liberty (1974) one of the vignettes has a family sitting around a table on toilets.  Food is consumed, secretively, in small cubicles away from sight. Le professeur des gendarmes proclaims, “Madrid was filled with the stench of—pardon my language–food. It was indecent.”  Matheson’s “F—” (the word “Food” has similar impact as the curse word “Fuck”), is formed around a similar situation.  A time traveler from 1954 arrives in the far future where food and drink is taken intravenously.  Much to his confusion, the food in his time machine is confiscated and he is threatened with jail.  In order to escape he must convince a dirty old man (in that he craves, in a deliberately sexualized manner) to eat again.  The heavy correlation between the illicit nature of eating with sexual acts is rather shocking for a 50s short story.

“Dear Diary” (1954), short story, 2/5 (Bad) is a mercifully short epistolary story containing two letters and a fragment of a third.  The first is from the present where a young woman laments her place in the world and how much she wants to be an actress in Hollywood: “having the men fall over themselves to kiss your hand” (104).  She wishes it was a “couple of thousand years from now” where meals are pills and there are rocket ships and “free love” (104).  Cut to second letter…  Same scenario, young woman of the future has exactly the same type of complaints but recast in terms of the new society of 3954 A.D.  The fragment of the third indicates some apocalyptical regression.  The future will have the same problems all dolled up in new terms and situations.

“To Fit the Crime” (1952), short story, 2/5 (Bad):  At this point in the collection the quality drastically decreases.  A cantankerous old poet approaches death with anger, frustration, and no tact—he lashes out at his loved ones and accuses them of murdering him.  After death he enters a realm that seems heavenly.  But, he slowly realizes that the punishment is directly related to his poetic sensibilities.  He is tortured by their endless clichéd speech.  His form of hell.

“Dress of White Silk” (1951), short story, 3/5 (Average) is an odd and oblique horror story with a supernatural elements.  As with “Born of Man and Woman,” “Dress of White Silk” is told from the perspective of a young child with all the accompanying spelling and grammatical errors.  She obsesses over her deceased mother’s white silk dress which appears to have supernatural powers.  Her friend Mary Jane comes over and angers the narrator causing the dress to come alive (?) and a strange death.  Is the narrator a vampire?   Not sure what to make of this one.

“Disappearing Act” (1953), short story, 3/5 (Average): Another epistolary story comprised of the entries of a school notebook “which was found two weeks ago in a Brooklyn candy store” (120).  A failed writer and his wife make ends meet by working late nights as typists.  He receives a job offer for a magazine by turns it down—he rather have the days off for writing.  One day he decides to cheat on his wife for no apparent reason.  And slowly, his live dissolves before his eyes…  Everything and every person that meant anything to him slowly disappears.  The notebook fragment of his life that remains.

“The Wedding” (1953), short story, 2/5 (Bad):  A strange man makes his chubby soon-to-be wife go through a vast assortment of superstitious activities before their wedding.  And he turns out to be right… But his wife is in a coma.  Boring.

“Shipshape Home” (1952), short story, 2/5 (Bad):  One of the weaker stories in the collection recounts a couple who discover the reason for their incredibly cheap apartment complex.  Initially the husband is very suspicious of his wife’s basement discovery of giant rocket engines as she has an active imagination  (“Remember the time you thought the milkman was a knife killer for the Maffia” [sic], 147).  And then their entire block detaches from the city and heads to the stars!  The implication that aliens might want to take humans with them to space is somewhat interesting—I guess.  Dull.

“The Traveller” (1954), short story, 2/5 (Bad):  A forgettable time traveller story where a professors goes back in time and watches the crucifixion of Christ.  Of course the version recounted by the Bible contains numerous modifications to the actual scene on Golgotha.  Regardless of the historical reality of the situation the Professor experiences a religious conversion watching Christ suffer: “It was Christmas Eve and it was a lovely time to find a faith” (180).  The lesson: the institution is built on historical inventions but the message is still worthwhile (?).

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

(Charles Binger’s cover for the 1955 edition)

(Uncredited cover—Hieronymus Bosch—for the 1962 edition)

(Gene Szafran’s cover for the 1970 edition)

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29 thoughts on “Book Review: Third From the Sun, Richard Matheson (1955)”

  1. I have never read Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (19). I do not like zombies.
    But… I Am Legend was about vampires! Your dislike of zombies must be pretty strong then 😛

    “Born of Man and Woman” and “Mad House” are definitely the tops in the collection, those are two of my faves of his. Some of the mid-range ones like “Dress of White Silk” I think highlight Matheson’s strengths—atmosphere, emotion, etc.—but also his weakness, namely that his shorts are often thin in plot… a lot of times he didn’t have much to say, but could say it real pretty-like.

      1. I’ve seen the horrid The Omega Man (1971) film version with Charlton Heston. I should have remembered… But, that was so awful I must have purged it from my mind.

  2. If you’ve only seen the film adaptations of I Am Legend then you probably have the wrong idea about the book – and who the actual ‘monster’ is.

    Also, the chapter with the dog will make you cry.

      1. It is true that Matheson didn’t like the Price version, even though he worked on the screenplay.

        As with “The Shining,” most of the things I like about “Last Man on Earth” are things that have little to do with the screenplay,like the fact that I like the actors and the photography. “Last Man on Earth” was filmed in Italy, so to a young MPorcius who hadn’t yet left North America the look of the thing was mesmerizing.

  3. My only experiences with Matheson so far have been his Twilight Zone epis, which are often the highlights of the series. “Third From the Sun” was in the first season, which was okay, with a twist, as you say.

    1. (tangent: reading Charnas’ Walk to the End of the World (1974). Pick up a copy if you’re in the mood for some radical feminism/terrifying world/fascinating setting)

  4. “I Am Legend” is a pretty enjoyable novel,an inversion of the vampire myth altered to suit an sf premise.It stands alone I think,not bearing comparison with better books by authors who also combined genres like Ray Bradbury.It also influenced latter books like the excellent “Ferve Dream” by George Martin.

      1. To be honest,no.Nor have I read anything else by George Martin.His FD though is a better,more sophisticated novel than IAL.You might like to skip Matheson’s book and read that one instead,if you haven’t already.

        It does owe a debt though to IAL.

  5. I disagree with most of the negative comments by people about I Am Legend – it is an apocalyptic, existential masterpiece! It is one of the best science fiction novels, of that ilk, that I have ever read. It is incredibly well written, in a subtle, minimalistic, atmospheric kind of way. And the allegorical undertones of the novel stay in your mind, long after you have finished it. The ‘vampires’ are actually sort of zombie/vampire hybrids, which are explained and treated in a logical way – this isn’t wet fantasy rubbish. And Shatterface is correct – the bit with the dog is…well, shattering 🙂

    1. You might as well pick up this collection — as you can see, some of the stories are darn good. Collections other than “The Nebula Winners” or some other more specific criteria for selection are generally hit or miss. Editors include poor filler material to hit the 180 pages they need.

  6. I haven’t read it yet. I have the exact same Bosch, 1962 copy, plus a few others by him, which I forget the titles of, but it will be a while before I start a new SF book, as I currently have a number of unfinished books I need to get back to, after an unintended hiatus (one of which is Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, which is excellent, so far).

    I look forward to eventually seeing what you think of I Am Legend, as, like you, I find most zombie – and vampire, to a lesser extent – films very irritating, cliche, stupid and just plain boring (apart from The Walking Dead TV series, which is, believe it or not, wonderful and highly original, occasionally bordering on genius).

    However, as I say, I.A.L. is very different; the vampire-zombies don’t act like ‘movie’ zombies (or vampires), they don’t shamble along, rotting away, growling and gnashing their teeth, they don’t look silly and pathetic. They are just ‘there’, in a subtle, melancholic, incontrovertible sense, and the novel is as much about the protagonist’s own ennui, loneliness, lethargy and despair, in such a decrepit world, as it is about the external post-apocalypse. Not much happens, in the way of plot, but it is utterly gripping, from page to page. I think this is why it isn’t that well liked by more mainstream SF/Horror fans – because it is closer, in some ways, to a European novel of the mid-20th century, with its Existentialist and Absurdist undertones and sombre themes.

    1. James DC, I’ll have to respectfully disagree on some of your I Am Legend comments. The zombie-vampires of the novel are killed by wooden stakes, only come out at night, and claw and scratch at the protagonists door everyday, placating him to exit so they can suck his blood. That’s almost as cliche as vampires get. While I can’t disagree that there are “existential” facets to the manner in which the protagonist is portrayed, I can say it boils down to a rather simple formula that has been beaten to death: life sucks therefore I drink, and does not begin to approach the manner in which other authors approach this quandary – Sartre to Dostoevsky. Matheson’s prose and manner of storytelling do indeed drive the story wonderfully, compelling you to read. But the underlying substance is just genre fluff with a little self-loathing sprinkled on top. And the hand-wavy “science” that makes way for the vampire gene, well. Sorry, but I gotta agree with Joachim on this one.

  7. Hello Joachim, Long time since I’ve been online much, am so glad to see you reviewing one of my favorite writers. (I’ll resist spending my time talking about I Am Legend, except to say I totally disagree with the negative reviews–it’s one of the few “classics” of the era that was better than I expected, and deeper, too. RCM’s son wrote a very cool appreciation of the book that managed to bring AIDS into the discussion. Thus ends my not comment on the book.)

    Very good, honest take on Matheson’s stories. He wrote many stories that were just kind of okay, but his best stories are discretely subversive of the era’s beliefs and truly striking in using genre frames to touch on emotions and subjects SF stories rarely touched on. “The Last Day,” for example, is the opposite of the Heinleinian hero style of SF–it’s about a guy going to see his mom on the last day of the world.

    Matheson’s best are right up there with the best SF short stories ever written–I’m talking Ballard, PKD, and a few others. Picking one at random, “The Distributor” is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.

    Matheson really did the “horror in modern America” long before Stephen King. He didn’t originate it, but he sure did nurture it.

    1. Thanks for you comment. Alas, I am no fan of SF horror so I probably will not be reading I Am Legend Soon despite its historical importance to the genre.

      None of the stories in this collection approached the craft and skill of Ballard. Sorry. None of them approximated what Ballard is capable of. And again, I am only referring to the ones in this collection.

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