This is the seventh entry in a month-long series focusing on a horror anthology edited by Patton Oswalt called The Ghost Box (buy it here). The blog will resume its standard format in November.
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In July of 1950, a story appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction called “Born of Man and Woman.” The story was written by a young man named Richard Matheson. While Matheson would attain renown in time, this was his first professional sale, the story having been written when he was only twenty-two. Four years later it would become the title piece of Matheson’s first short story collection.
This is a very short story, clocking in at no more than three or four pages, but already Matheson’s talent is on full display. The story is told as a series of diary entries from the point of a view of a child, around eight years of age, kept chained in the basement by its parents (we are not given the child’s gender). The child is poorly educated – it describes sunshine as “goldness in the upstairs” – and writes in broken English. It is lonely and curious, and frequently escapes from its basement dwelling to spy on its parents and other children in the neighborhood. Upon discovering it has escaped, its parents drive it back down to the basement and viciously beat it.
Through casually dropped details, Matheson gradually reveals why the child’s parents treat it this way: it is not entirely human. It possesses great strength, repeatedly ripping its chains from the wall to free itself. It also drips “ugly” green fluid from its skin, which causes its feet to stick to the floor. When it is attacked by a neighbor’s cat, it crushes the cat to death with its bare hands. It has many legs and hangs from the ceiling like a bat.
Reading this story, I was immediately reminded of Jerome Bixby’s “It’s A Good Life,” written three years later. Both are stories of inhuman children born to human parents and the fear they generate in the people around them. Although both children are capable of great harm, both stories treat them sympathetically, or, that is to say, as children: they do not understand that they are causing harm. In addition, neither story reveals the underlying cause of their physical/mental differences – I suppose that ultimately it does not matter.
What I found most impressive about Matheson’s story is that it presents no fewer than three fully-formed characters in as many pages. The child’s parents are not mere monsters, though they certainly act that way; Matheson shows us glimpses of guilt, shame, and deep sadness for their actions. We sense that they love their child, but they do not understand it and are terrified that they will not be able to remain in control. There are hints that the child has physically harmed them in the past, driving them to this extreme behavior. The child, meanwhile, does not understand why it is being treated this way, and feels shame for its own existence. Matheson evokes deep sympathy for the child even as he reveals more and more of its true nature. As the story goes on, we see it developing a sense of self-worth, and of anger at how it has been treated. When the child finally resolves to stand up against its abuse at the story’s end, we know that things will not go well for its parents.
Frightening, mysterious, and possessed of a surprising amount of human feeling, “Born of Man and Woman” is rightfully regarded as a classic. Like many of Matheson’s most famous stories, it has been reprinted dozens of times. In 1970, the Science Fiction Writers of America selected it as one of the best science fiction stories published before the establishment of the Nebula Award; in 2001, it was a finalist for the Retro-Hugo Award for Best Short Story of 1951. Matheson’s own opinions on the story were more muted. In an interview for Sci-Fi Station, he elaborates:
“I don’t recall what the circumstances were of how I got the idea for ‘Born of Man and Woman’. I think I just wanted to write a story about what would happen to an average set of parents if they had a monstrosity for a child. I did not mean for it to be science fiction. I assumed it was a fantasy, and as I have told people, I would not write it today, and I would not have written it for a long time in the past, simply because I could not have believed it with what I know now, having been a parent and having raised four children. I just wouldn’t be able to accept the logistics of it, which would be unfortunate, because it works out pretty good, and it somehow became a classic in the field, even though it doesn’t have that logic.”
I personally was very impressed with it, as I have been with all of Matheson’s writing. Seek it out and give it a read.
NEXT TIME: “Shadetree” by Michael Reaves!