Nightmare at 20,000 Feet by Richard Matheson. Originally published by Ballantine, 1962. Approx. 21 pages.
Ah, now here we have a true classic. It is unlikely that you have not seen at least one of the screen adaptations of this, one of horror Grandmaster Richard Matheson's most popular stories. Whether you prefer the Shatner version or the Lithgow one, they are both terrifying in their own rights.
But how many of us have actually read the story that serves as the basis for this tale? And what exactly makes this yarn so enduring?
The fact is that Nightmare at 20,000 is more than a story of what may or may not be an actual monster tampering with the works of an airplane. It is about fears, phobias, and frustrations.
Our protagonist, Wilson, is traveling coast to coast on a business trip. we get the sense that he is pretty harried; no big fan of flight, irritable stomach issues, a general dissatisfaction with his life in general, Even his job comes with the fear of attack from looming youth gangs; hence, Wilson has taken to carrying a gun with him for safety.
But are these boogeymen real or in his head? The true test comes when, during the storm-tossed plane's flight, Wilson is sure he sees something, something very much like a man, tampering with one of the plane's engines. Not only that, this hunched, hairy creature is taunting him; taking advantage of the apparent fact that only Wilson is aware of him.
Wilson's calls for help make him seem, of course, all the more irrational. But, the creature's tampering is upping the stakes more with each minute. Who will ultimately win this battle of wits?
Matheson starts this story off extremely well. He uses a situation most of us can sympathize with: wariness of air travel, as the basis for understanding the danger. Along with this fear is the crippling claustrophobia of being in a plane, and the utter impotence of not being able to help in any way should anything start to go wrong.
The plane roils, so does Mr. Wilson's stomach. Even his mental state is tossed and turned. This really sets the overall tone.
The climax, however, is a tad bit rushed. It could be argued that the endings to either the TV episode or the movie version tied things up in a more satisfactory manner. Each of those end with a "kicker"; there is some evidence that shows something odd did, in fact, happen to the engine. The close here is a bit ambiguous; which is fine as well. We are left more to ponder whether Wilson lost his sanity, or made a desperate grab at something meaningful in what he already felt was an meaningless existence. Or, was there actually a creature on the wing? An actual gremlin, like the ones the men returning from the War talked about.
Track this story down and give it a whirl, it makes for a nice half hour of reading in the days before Halloween. Or revisit one of the film versions. The original Twilight Zone series is on Netflix, and this is Season 5, Episode 3. The movie version isn't too hard to find, just skip to this story (the last one, because the other ones kind of suck).
Final Score: 8/10