The Shrinking Man

Richard Matheson
The Shrinking Man Cover

The Shrinking Man


The last time I watched Jack Arnold's 1957 film version of this novel, which was four or five years ago, I realized that I remembered every moment of it from the handful of viewings I had given it since it first made it to television in the 1960's. I think it is the definitive science fiction film of the 1950's, and I know that opinion is open to challenges, but Arnold's film has been selected for the National Registry by the National Film Preservation Board. I had never felt the need to read Matheson's short novel, and on some level assumed that it would be a pulpy rendition of the more thoughtful film, but a recent interest in Matheson as a writer finally got me to pick up the book. I did not read the Classics of Science Fiction edition pictured here. I read a Tor mass market edition that includes several classic short stories. It has a great cover but some of the most piss-poor copy editing of anything I have ever read. I do not recommend it.

Matheson tells the story of Scott Carey, the six foot three family man who undergoes the inexplicable shrinking process, by starting with the spider. (I assume that it is unlikely that anyone reading this has not seen the film, so I not concerned about spoilers, And of course every edition of the book for the past 60 years has had a little man and big spider on the cover.) Arnold's film follows a strict narrative line and tells the story in an efficient 81 minutes. In the novel, Carey, shrinking at the rate of 1/7th of an inch a day, knows he has only five days before he disappears. The chain of accidents that had trapped him in his cellar, as well as the entire agonizing story of his deteriorating physical condition and his relationship to the full-sized world, is told in flashbacks.

Carey is not always particularly sympathetic, although you have to admit he is facing extraordinary challenges. But when he is difficult to his wife, family, media, and the doctors eager to study his condition, he is fighting for his dignity as a human being -- and more specifically as an American male of the 1950's. That last angle must stand out more strongly now that when the book was written, but the scenes where he confronts a drunken pedophile who mistakes him for a young teen, or mindlessly vicious, 1950's-style juvenile delinquents are painful reading. Even more excruciating is Matheson's chronicle of Carey's deteriorating relationship with his wife.

The final pages of the book, as Carey loses all physical presence but realizes that he is still part of the infinite universe, is one of the greatest moments in mid 20th century science fiction. You can watch that moment on You Tube. Just know that in Matheson's version, God does not figure into the equation.