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I recently had the enviable task of reading nearly every story Richard Matheson ever wrote and selecting 33 tales to be included in Penguin Classics’ The Best of Richard Matheson. This turned out to be like stepping into a time machine, transported back to the age when I started reading him. I was fourteen. The year was 1986. My introduction to his fiction, his short novel I Am Legend, was one of the first books that made me run up to my friends and tackle them so they’d all check it out, too.

If you haven’t read it (what the hell is wrong with you?), it manages to be a work of science fiction, a vampire story, a progenitor of the “biological plague” apocalyptic novel, and also an excellent thriller. All that in about 160 pages. I had to find out more. I dove into The Shrinking Man (the film added “Incredible”) and Hell House and wow. I wish I had a more sophisticated way to describe my reaction to the seismic effect of Richard Matheson on my young mind, but “wow” gets at the raw, awestruck nature of thing. And then I came to find out the man had written short stories. I tracked them down with gusto, with glee. And with time I began to relate to the man’s writing in a way that seemed damn near mystical.

I want to explain exactly what I mean by that.

There’s a lot I need to say about Matheson, and the importance of his fiction, the reasons why this collection is so vital and worthwhile, but I can’t get to that directly. I will go there eventually. But first I have to tell you about my Matheson moment. I don’t mean that I met the man. I mean I stepped into a story he could’ve written. I have to tell you about Cedric and his mother.

My mother made good when I turned fourteen.

At least that’s how she saw it when she moved us out of an apartment in one part of Queens and took us to a house she’d bought in another. The woman emigrated from Uganda in her twenties and now, in her forties, she’d worked like a machine to stop renting and start owning. From a two-bedroom to a two-story home, damn right my mother felt proud. Me, my sister, and my grandmother were the grateful tagalongs.

We moved in over the summer and when September rolled around I started going to school. The local public school was Springfield Gardens High, and just before I arrived the place had been outfitted with the newest, latest technology: metal detectors. And with good reason. This was 1986, the Crack Era, and as old news reports will tell you some people had a propensity to shoot guns wildly in places where teens gathered. My mother took one look at the school where she was meant to send her child and she made changes posthaste. This woman was not about to have her kid ushered through those contraptions every morning before heading to homeroom. More to the point, she didn’t want to get some phone call about how I’d been caught by Stray Bullet Syndrome while standing around outside. She found a private school out on Long Island and before I could say “where the hell is Nassau County” she’d gotten me enrolled on a scholarship. My mom was no joke.

 

My mom also wasn’t a car owner.

She got to work and back by taking a bus to the Long Island Rail Road and the train into Manhattan. Suffice to say there weren’t any such choices at Woodmere Academy. People either got dropped off by their parents (Mercedes, BMW, Audi) or they took a school bus. Mom enrolled me in the pickup service and every morning, around 7:45, I’d go out and stand on the corner of 229th Street and 145th Avenue and there I’d wait for one of those long yellow buses to pick me up.

I waited in front of a single-family home with yellow aluminum siding. One morning, maybe around November or December, when the chill weather set in heavy, the front window of that house slipped up and a kid my age stuck his head out the window and called to me.

I turned, baffled. He had an enormous round head and close haircut. This gave him a kind of Charlie Brown look. A brown Charlie Brown. He wore a white tank top. He was, by no definition, a skinny kid.