Saturday, April 12, 2008

"Dance of the Dead" by Richard Matheson

The year is 1997. It is post-World War Three and two couples are driving to St. Louis in a convertible. Their destination: a night club to witness a "loopy" perform the Dance of the Dead. The group gleefully sings and chants; one member of the group has recently taken a class on pre-war comic books and a favorite line is, "I am Popeye the sailor man!" And as the story unfolds the Popeye chant gains an ominous and forbidding shade.

The miles whisk by and it isn't long until the lovers find themselves in the club. The place is dark, crowded and unnerving. They find a table near the stage and the young men can't contain their excitement for the Dance of the Dead to begin, and once it does it is an experience the four will never forget. It is a performance that spotlights the nastiness, cruelty, and utter meanness that very often is humanity.

"Dance of the Dead" is vintage Richard Matheson. It is written visually:

Needle quivering at 130, two 5-mph notches from gauges end. A sudden dip! Their young frames jolted and the thrown-up laughter of three was windswept into night. Around a curve, darting up and down a hill, flashing across a leveled plain--an ebony bullet skimming earth.

Mr. Matheson inserts slang with its definition throughout the story as a means of both defining the futuristic setting and showcasing the link between language and behavior. An example is the word struggle: n., act of promiscuous loveplay; usage evolved during WW3. It, struggle, is a word that very nicely describes the harshness of the futuristic world; loveplay is a struggle rather than a pleasure.

"Dance of the Dead" is poignant--it says something about humanity, abuse and power. It creates an image of loneliness and desperation, but it is also a terrifically entertaining story that is both haunting and horrific.

"Dance of the Dead" was originally published in 1954 and can currently be found in Richard Matheson's collection I Am Legend. It was recently translated into film as an episode of Showtime's Masters of Horror. The screenplay was written by Richard Christian Matheson and it was directed by Tobe Hooper.


Anonymous said...

I just read this story, and really enjoyed it. The juxtaposition of 50s values ("Dont go drinking with boys") with a post-WW3 world was interesting in a very Bradbury-esque way. And growing up in a St. Louis in the 90s that was obviously very different than his vision made me appreciate it all the more.

dblumentr said...

The latest Maze Runner Scorch Trials Death Party scenes remind me of this story by Richard Matheson.