The Incredible Shrinking Man: A beautiful psychological study of masculinity

SFF book reviews  Richard Matheson The Incredible Shrinking Man

Richard Matheson The Incredible Shrinking ManThe Incredible Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson

Every day Scott Carey is getting shorter by 1/7 of an inch. The doctors have figured out why — he was exposed to a combination of insecticide and radioactivity — but so far they have not been able to make him stop shrinking. Now Scott is only one inch tall and he is trapped in the cellar of his family’s rented home with a stale piece of bread, an out-of-reach box of crackers, a sponge, a garden hose, a water heater, and a black widow spider. And in seven more days, he’ll be gone.

Well, that’s enough to make many readers want to hear Scott’s story. How did he get in the cellar? Why didn’t he prepare for this since he had plenty of time? Where is his wife and daughter? Will the therapies reverse the shrinkage? Will the spider get him?

Readers who are expecting a horror-adventure story will be pleased with Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man because there’s plenty of scary excitement. Spiders, cats, and sparrows are monsters (and so are toddlers); the oil burner is a giant tower with an unpredictable roaring flame; the garden hose is a viper; the sand pile is a desert; the repairman is a giant; pins are spears and a spool of thread is a rope. That story by itself is fun and fascinating.

Richard Matheson The Incredible Shrinking ManBut it’s the rest of the story — the flashbacks, marked with Scott’s height as he continues to shrink — that make The Incredible Shrinking Man such an excellent book. For this story is less about the horror of being physically small than it is about the horror of being physically different and, specifically, about losing manhood. Scott was originally 6’2” and he had a good job and a loving wife and daughter. But as he gradually loses height, he also gradually loses his place as an employee, a husband, a father, and a man. It is this change that is horrifying to watch and made me consider what it means to be a man — the importance of height, strength, respect, the ability to provide, and even the pitch of the voice. And then a heartbreaking scene at a carnival reminds us that “reality is relative” — much of how we are perceived (and therefore how we perceive ourselves) depends on our position relative to others.

The Incredible Shrinking Man is so much more than an exciting and well-written horror story — it’s a beautiful psychological study of masculinity and loneliness. I listened to Blackstone Audio’s version. It’s eight hours long and excellently read by Yuri Rasovsky. I highly recommend this version.

The Incredible Shrinking Man — (1956) Publisher: Inch by inch, day by day, Scott Carey is getting smaller. Once an unremarkable husband and father, Scott finds himself shrinking with no end in sight. His wife and family turn into unreachable giants, the family cat becomes a predatory menace, and Scott must struggle to survive in a world that seems to be growing ever larger and more perilous — until he faces the ultimate limits of fear and existence.

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KAT HOOPER is a professor at the University of North Florida where she teaches neuroscience, psychology, and research methods courses. She occasionally gets paid to review scientific textbooks, but reviewing speculative fiction is much more fun. Kat lives with her husband and their children in Jacksonville Florida.

View all posts by Kat Hooper

2 comments

  1. Odd cover. I feel the urge to LOLcat it: “R u a hoomin or r u a nom?”

  2. “Mmm… walk diz way, liddle man!”

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