In the thirty years since Richard Christian Matheson burst upon the scene with his brilliant collection Scars and Other Distinguishing Marks, many things have changed. Up until his arrival, the short-short story was the purview of a miniscule handful of writers—Fredric Brown, Henry Slesar, and O. Henry leap most readily to mind—who’d mastered the art of telling a tight, twisted tale with a punch at the end in one thousand words or less, on a fairly regular basis.
RC Matheson refined this with a deranged microsurgeon’s skill, elevating it to an even more rarified and impeccable level of artistry. I recall one enthusiast (I think it was T.E.D. Klein) saying that his psychological horror stories were like perfectly chiseled diamonds, fired point blank into your skull from the barrel of a gun. And well past the tail end of the 20th century, he was the unrivaled master of this terrain.
But the last decade has seen a massive rise in what’s now called “flash fiction,” so-called because it’s designed to be written in a flash, told start to finish in 5-1,500 words max. And while most of it is squirted out like sweat beads from the brows of a bazillion beginners, there’s now an ample body of quality work in the short-short form. Far more than ever before.
On top of that, one thing Ellen Datlow and I agree upon wholeheartedly is that we are in a new golden age of the short story. Which is to say that many of the best short stories ever written are being written right now, by gifted up-and-comers and veterans still operating at the peak of their powers.
So when I heard that RC had a new collection from Gauntlet Press—with eyeball-warping cover and interior art by longtime collaborator Harry O. Morris—I was excited on many levels. Having read and loved his haunting Hollywood mindfuck novella The Ritual of Illusion, I knew his gifts had in no way diminished. But I was also deeply curious as to how his patented microsurgery would stack up against the rest of the new short-short crop.
And the answer, of course, is beautifully. I’m delighted to say that Zoopraxis is as fine and fierce a collection of brain-melting literary bon bons as you could possibly hope to devour. From the ruthless word-choppery of the opener (“How To Edit”) to the exploration of boundless cosmic verbal diarrhea (“The Talking Man”) which closes the show, Matheson demonstrates how it’s done, over and over again, with a staggering range of targets and tones.
Readers in it for the horror will be most drawn to “Last Words,” “Transfiguration,” “133,” “Ground Zero,” and “Making Cabinets”—the first two meditations from inside a psychotic mind, the latter three recoiling from a too-intimate knowledge of same. “Dead To Me” takes place at a pivot point between. And his most personal nightmares are explored in “Venturi” and “Sea of Atlas,” where the counterbalance of burning or drowning leave a particular pair of haunts on his heart.
That said, one of the other changes in the literary landscape is the one-two punch of Bizarro and the New Weird: two vaguely-competing genre movements, both more interested in strangeness than horror per se. And this is where the bulk of the material frankly falls. Both sides may feel free to arm-wrestle as to whose camp he falls into more, because that would be hilarious. But the fact is that both sides have a point; and few writers demonstrate how thin the line between is, without coming from either camp.
“Venturi,” “Bulimia,” “The Embalming Machine,” “Bedtime Story,” “Demise,” “Slaves of Nowhere,” and “Transfiguration” all take place at the dark end of not exactly horror, but definitely weirdness, and are all prime arm-wrestling material. But a remarkable amount of the stories here are made of savage, grinning fun—are, in fact, actually funny—which is a clear tickle on the Bizarro side of things.
This is particularly clear in my two favorite stories. “Pronoia” is, as its title suggests, a joyous declaration of how great it would be if—instead of being paranoid that everyone was out to get you—you were instead utterly convinced that absolutely EVERYBODY LOVES YOU with all their hearts, would do anything for you, and wants nothing more than wholly-consensual sex with you besides. Which is, of course, insane.
The other, “New Tricks,” involves a high-tech collar you can put on your favorite pooch, so it can tell you how it actually thinks and feels. As a dog-lover, this microscopic bullet-gem makes me wanna rub every belly in the canine multiverse. I could not possibly adore it more.
“How To Edit,” “Infomercial!”, “Kriss Kross Applesauce,” “Interrogation,” and “Evil Twins, Temporary Blindness, Bikers, and Amnesia” are all playful, sardonic riffs on madness, alternately homey and Hollywood style. But there’s an inescapable shadow over, under, and throughout. And all the best laughs hurt.
In the end, Richard Christian Matheson is his own thing, as always. And with Zoopraxis, he restakes his claim as one of the best in this new golden age of short (and short-short) fiction.
As such, it’s a book I recommend you devour leisurely, just a couple at a time. Just as soon as you fucking can.