The Last Day by Richard Matheson

First published in Amazing Stories, April-May 1953.

One of the things that genre fiction does very well is to isolate very specific aspects of life and bring them out in high contrast. You accept all the assumptions and conventions around a genre – the body in the library, the anthropomorphic aliens or fantasy race, the paranoid fantasies of the thrillers – because they provide circumstances where a perceptive writer can find elements of truth that are hard to spot amongst the noise of real life.

Genre fiction can explore life in moments of extremity. Characters can be subjected to the threat of violence or exposed to bizarre worlds and phenomena or have extravagant and extraordinary adventures of all unlikely sorts. By putting human nature under strain, great genre writers can reveal human truths and maybe make us reflect on what we really think is worth fighting for.

This story is a brillaint example of that type of story done well. It takes a really simple genre conceit – the end of the world – and simply and powerfully delivers a sublime description of the maternal bond.

Richard wakes up on the last day before the end of world with a massive hangover. Him and his mates have been on a massive bender including all sorts of debauchery.

Nancy and Bill lying each other’s arms, both naked. Norman curled up in an armchair, his thin face taut as he slept. Mort and Mel lying on the floor, covered with dirty throw rugs. Both snoring. Others on the floor.

Several of them are now dead, either suicide of killed in drunken brawls, made fatalistically incautious as the end approached. They’ve run out of eggs. Matheson doesn’t dwell on the cause of it all.

Norman turned his head and looked out the window. ‘It’s still up there,’ he muttered.

They looked up at the great flaming ball in the sky that crowded out the sun, the moon, the stars.

Norman turned away, throat moving. His lips trembled and he clamped them together. ‘Jesus,’ he said. ‘It’s today.’

He looked up at the sky again. Today,’ he repeated. ‘Everything.’

‘Everything,’ said Richard.

Spencer got up and turned off the gas.

Richard struggles to face the facts it’s the last day. He decides to visit his family – his sister, his brother in law, his niece and his Mum. He dreads seeing his Mum because she’s inclined to deliver religiously themed lectures, but he knows he has to.

Who else was there in the world to turn to? In wide world about to be burned, was there any other person who loved him above all others?

The story builds to a wonderfully controlled emotional climax as the world ends. It’s like the best of Bradbury, a seamless SF concept sketched out in a few deft strokes and then layered with believable characters and interactions. This and Kaleidoscope are have been my favourites in all these volumes so far by a considerable margin.

Maybe I just like these types of stories better than the other types of SF.? They both try and articulate the experience of ‘real’ people in SF situations. By real I mean both ‘realistic’ in sense of the characterisation but also that the characters aren’t exceptional; they’re not space captains, super scientists or gifted with super-human powers. They’re people like us, with ordinary jobs and recognisably humble ambitions. In these circumstances the writers can hand wave the details of the setting because the characters are drawn so convincingly that everything feels instantly familiar. We see it all so thoroughly through their point of view that we accept it all.

Richard Matheson died in June this year. Of course, I’ve read I am Legendand seen plenty of movies like The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Legend of Hell House and Trilogy of Terror, which are all really good. I’ve known who he is for a while, but never really took much interest. I’ll definitely be looking out more of his stories now.

Themes: Apocalypse, the final debauch, family, maternal love.

Posted in History of the Science Fiction Magazine, pulp, reading log, science fiction is dead, SF

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