In which a woman purchases an unusual knick-knack as a present for her boyfriend, and later suffers an extreme case of buyer’s remorse.
First published in 1969
Anthologized in Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
As I write this, we’ve been without Richard Matheson for over a week. His writing career lasted more than six decades, from 1950 until June 23rd, 2013, the day he passed away. His output included 28 novels and well over 100 short stories, in addition to numerous screenplays, many of which were adaptations of his own works. Over the decades, he became an acknowledged influence upon important cultural figures ranging from Stephen King and George Romero to Steven Spielberg and Roger Corman. He collaborated with Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, and received numerous major awards. Not bad at all, for someone who was here a mere 87 years.
Matheson was a narrative craftsman of the highest order. Not only could he create a plot capable of drawing you in from the first paragraph, he was something even rarer: an author of “one where” stories. These are stories that get lodged in the public psyche — people might not remember who wrote them, or their titles, but they remember their premises.
These are a few of Matheson’s “one where” stories: Remember the one where a nervous guy on an airplane looks out the window and sees a monster on the wing of the plane? (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet“) Or the one where a salesman driving through the California desert is pursued by a sinister truck, for no apparent reason at all? (“Duel“) Or the one where an old lady finds her isolated farmhouse invaded by tiny, hostile figures in spacesuits? (“The Invaders“) Or the one where a normal man discovers that he’s a monster, in a world where everyone else is a vampire? (I Am Legend) Or the one where the main character starts shrinking and never stops? (The Shrinking Man*)
Matheson’s most effective works are fashioned around a central concept that’s worked out to the nth degree. All of his ideas have the following in common:
- They are deceptively simple
- They aren’t easily forgotten
- You didn’t think of them first (most likely)
The story we’re discussing is one such. As with so much of Matheson’s work, it’s best known from a screen adaptation.
In this case, “Prey” provided the plot for “Amelia,” the final segment in the 1975 ABC television movie Trilogy of Terror. In the decades since that film’s premiere, it’s developed a solid cult following. I know any number of people who were who were thoroughly traumatized by it, and by “Amelia” in particular.
In both “Prey and “Amelia,” the main character is a thirty-three year old professional woman who’s saddled with an overly-possessive mother. As the story begins, said mother is attempting to guilt-trip Amelia for planning to spend Friday night with her new boyfriend Arthur.
It’s Arthur’s birthday, and because he’s an anthropology buff, Amelia has found what she thinks is the perfect gift. It’s a Zuni fetish doll, which she bought from “a curio shop on Third Avenue.” According to the documentation that comes with the doll, his name is “He Who Kills,” and the gold chain he’s wrapped in somehow keeps the malevolent warrior spirit within him under control.
Pop quiz (100% of your grade):
At some point during “Prey,” the protective chain slips off of He Who Kills, and:
- He returns to malevolent life
- Amelia slips it back into place, has a cup of soup, reflects on her childhood traumas, listens to Laura Nyro‘s album Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, and goes to bed alone.
(If you answered 2, you really did wander in here by accident, didn’t you?)
When the inevitable chain-slippage takes place, Amelia is immediately thrust into the nightmare state of having to defend herself against a foe she can’t entirely believe exists. This is one of the strongest parts of the story: Matheson captures the mindset of someone who’s in shock because her deadly enemy doesn’t fit into her worldview.
There are also many examples in “Prey” of the visual nature of Matheson’s fiction. Even when he wasn’t working on a script, he was still writing for the movies, in a sense: his short stories and novels are like films that unspool in your mind. His prose is always so crisp and vivid that you can clearly visualize what’s happening. No wonder his work was such a gift to screenwriters.
In fact, the only thing in “Prey” that’s not clear — by design — is how Amelia came by the doll in the first place. Yes, she bought it in the aforementioned curio shop, but how did they get it? Why sort of supply chain would be involved for distributing this kind of product? What firm produced and packaged the doll, and what are the working conditions like there? Since removing the gold chain can activate the doll, shouldn’t there be a better safety mechanism in place? And, as a potentially dangerous item, should there be some sort of warning label on the box? Or am I just over-thinking this?
In any case, there’s one thing that doesn’t need to be over-thought: the best way to honor Richard Matheson’s memory is to go to your favorite bookstore or library, return with some of his books, and read. Get the flavor of his work from “Prey” or his other short stories, then work your way up to his novels, such as Hell House (which is the most frightening book I’ve ever read; I’m serious.) Even if you’re just a casual fan of this kind of fiction, you’ll be glad you did.
And, unlike the menaces in so many of his stories, may he rest in peace.
*As you might expect. The Shrinking Man was only Incredible in the movie, however.