Steel and Other Stories is a collection of stories written by Richard Matheson who is probably best known for his novels I am Legend and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Most were originally published in pulp magazines in the 1950s, though two are recent and have never been collected before. Each is quite short:
- “Steel” — (1956, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) Steel Kelly, a washed-up boxer, is now living vicariously through his broken down robot fighter. If they can win the next match, Steel hopes he’ll have enough money to fix up his robot. “Steel” was the inspiration for a Twilight Zone episode and the movie Real Steel. It’s exciting and demonstrates Richard Matheson’s talent for writing men from a psychological perspective.
- “To Fit the Crime” — (1952, Fantastic) A cruel and pretentious 1950s poet dies and finds out what hell is like for cruel and pretentious 1950s poets. This one is amusing.
- “The Wedding” — (1953, Beyond Fantasy Fiction) A superstitious groom ruins his marriage before it gets started.
- “The Conqueror” — (1954, Bluebook Magazine) A young Yankee idolizes the pistol fighters out West, so he sets out to become one. I don’t normally read Westerns, but I liked this one.
- “Dear Diary” — (1954, Born of Man and Woman) A very short and penetrating story about two pessimistic women from two different eras writing entries in their diaries.
- “Descent” — (1954, If) A nuclear bomb is about to be dropped on California and the citizens are preparing to leave everything behind and descend into an underground city.
- “The Doll That Does Everything” — (1954) A destructive baby is making life miserable for his poet father and sculptor mother, so they buy him a sophisticated robot companion, hoping it will be a good influence on his behavior.
- “The Traveller” — (1954, Born of Man and Woman) Hoping to debunk the account of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, a professor is sent back in time to view it. This story is intense and moving.
- “When Day Is Dun” — (1954, Fantastic Universe) The last man on Earth is a poet. Even though he has no audience, he’s compelled to write an epitaph for humanity, blaming his species for destroying the Earth. The twist ending to this story is ironic and disturbing.
- “The Splendid Source” — (1956, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) The basis of the Family Guy episode “The Splendid Source,” this story is about an eccentric millionaire who wants to trace the source of all dirty jokes. It’s really funny.
- “Lemmings” — (1958, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) A couple of friends watch as masses of people, lemming-like, walk into the ocean and drown themselves. This is the only story I didn’t like. Fortunately, it was only a few minutes long — I believe it’s the shortest story he’s written.
- “The Edge” — (1958, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) A creepy tale about a man who doesn’t know he has a doppelganger.
- “A Visit to Santa Claus” — (1957, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine) A horror story about a man who has hired a hitman to kill his wife while he takes his son to visit Santa Claus.
- “Dr. Morton’s Folly” — (2009, Vice Magazine) Another horror story about a dentist treating a man who refuses to let him extract his left canine tooth… which is abnormally long.
- “The Window of Time” — (2010, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) A sweet and nostalgic story about aging. I don’t know when he wrote it, but this story was published when Matheson was 84 years old, which makes it especially poignant and a beautiful ending to this collection.
I’ve read a lot of speculative fiction from the 1950s and in some ways Richard Matheson’s stories have the same sort of feel, but in other ways they seem less dated than those of, for example, Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury. I think that’s because Matheson doesn’t focus on space exploration, aliens, and atomic war. Instead, he uses speculative fiction to explore human psychology, especially the psychology of men, and that is a theme that just hasn’t changed much since the 1950s. Every story in Steel and Other Stories (with the exception, perhaps, of “The Splendid Source”) examines the motives, behaviors, and hidden thoughts of human beings who feel real and deep. This makes every story, even the ones with plots I wouldn’t normally care for, feel like a work of art. My favorites were “Steel,” “The Conquerer,” “The Traveller,” and “The Splendid Source.”
I listened to Blackstone Audio’s version of Steel and Other Stories, which was narrated by Scott Brick. Mr. Brick seems to be the master of old SFF on audio — he has this style down right and he always does a great job. I recommend Steel and Other Stories for fans of Richard Matheson, 1950s SFF (or anyone who wants to become better educated in that genre), and anyone who likes their SFF with a focus on character (especially male) psychology.