The Shrinking Man – Richard Matheson (1956)
‘Scott Carey has been exposed to a cloud of radioactive spray. Now he can no longer deny the extraordinary truth. Not only is he losing weight, he is also shorter. Scott Carey has begun to shrink.
At first Carey tries to continue some sort of normal life. Later, having left human conflict behind, he must survive in a world where insects and spiders are giant enemies. And even that is only a stage on his ultimate journey into the unknown.’
Blurb from the 2002 Gollancz SF Masterworks paperback edition
‘The Shrinking Man’ can be seen superficially as the very basic tale of a man who shrinks one seventh of an inch a day, with all that may entail. Chris Moore’s cover for the Gollancz Masterworks (2002) edition shows the hero, Scott Carey, pursued by a monstrous Black Widow spider and indeed, the film version ‘The Incredible Shrinking man’ focused very much on the sensational/adventurous elements. The novel however is far more than it may at first appear, particularly since I believe Gollancz would not put a title in their prestigious Masterworks series unless they felt justified in its inclusion.
The structure is a dual timeline and alternates between Scott Carey’s ‘final’ week (He is one inch tall when he begins his narrative) and his gradual diminution from a six-foot American average guy.
What makes this novel more than a sensationalist pulp-fiction work is that Matheson concentrates on the psychological and social implications which first make themselves felt when Scott realises that his wife is taller than he is.
Matheson then embarks on a gradual process of emasculation, exploring not only Scott’s reactions to the shrinking of his body but the changing attitudes of his wife, daughter and the outside world.
Matheson cleverly exploits symbolically and metaphorically issues central to male pride and the integrity of one’s masculinity. Scott is already dependent on his brother for a job, but is criticised and patronised by his sister-in-law. His effectiveness at work decreases with his height, leaving his brother’s company in financial difficulties. Later, his wife unconsciously begins treating him as a child and even driving a car (another benchmark of American masculinity) becomes difficult. Scott punctures a tyre and, too weak to change it, sets off on foot and is lured into another car by a drunken paedophile. Scott’s physical impotence in these situations is paralleled by his inability to make love to his wife. His sexual frustration is exacerbated by clandestine stalking of the teenage babysitter his wife hires to look after their child while she goes out to work (another emasculating factor). During this period Scott is locked in the cellar in order that Catherine, the babysitter, will not unexpectedly wander into the cellar and discover him.
Scott briefly regains a degree of self-esteem when he meets a female midget at a local circus, but this hiatus is short-lived.
The redemption, if we can call it such, comes in the intervening ‘final week’ sections, in which Scott, having been accidentally locked out of the house and fallen into a cellar from which he cannot escape, is forced to find ways to survive with minimal food and water. Tellingly, Scott also has to do daily battle with a Black Widow spider which – we are reminded in the text – is female; the males of the species being consumed by their partners after mating.
Losing a seventh of an inch every day, Scott’s plight gets more difficult every day, but he finally triumphs by using his cunning to trap the spider and kill it.
Whether there is some metaphor in this final destruction of a malevolent female force is unclear.
The novel is only slightly let-down by the science involved, the explanation for Scott’s condition being that exposure to a combination of radioactive sprays was causing his body to expel nitrogen at a constant rate.
But then this was the Nineteen-Fifties, and it was America, so any explanation regarding radioactivity was guaranteed to add an additional frisson of paranoia.
It is undoubtedly a minor classic and deserves to be re-filmed by a director who can concentrate on the issues that Matheson was actually writing about.