By Brian Martin | Graphic/Novels Editor Published: 10/08/2013 10:00 am EST
The Zuni fetish doll of "Prey" in 1975's Trilogy of Terror
Amelia is a girl torn between two people: her mother, a seemingly overbearing and possessive woman who has never quite let go of her 33-year-old daughter, and Arthur, her teacher boyfriend with an apparent affinity for strange anthropological artifacts. But she’s about to find herself torn much more literally, as a knife-wielding fiend threatens to carve her to pieces. Richard Matheson’s short story “Prey” is one that, like all the best creature tales, withholds just the right amount of information, giving us only the slightest of glimpses of its terrible little monster as it darts and stalks about the story’s claustrophobic environment.
“Prey” wastes no time in setting up its conflict. The first paragraph tells us exactly what’s going to happen, as we see the Zuni fetish doll Amelia intends to give Arthur for his birthday, which has the non-threatening, what-could-possibly-go-wrong name of He Who Kills. The doll falls from the table after Amelia leaves the room, and our hearts sink into our stomachs as the gold chain keeping its murderous spirit at bay threatens to slip off its neck. We know precisely what’s coming next (and we’re still not prepared for it).
We, like Amelia, don’t see the thing hunting her for nearly half the story. In fact, its actions are never described, beyond rushing at her or thrusting its weapon. The effect of this is that we don’t see any more of this bizarre little creature than Amelia does. At one point, Amelia ponders what the doll must look like as it tries to open the bathroom door. Is it hanging from the doorknob, using one hand to try to pick the lock with the kitchen knife? It’s an absurd little visual, but it’s confined to Amelia’s mind, allowing us to dismiss it just as quickly as she does when the terror quickly returns.
What could easily look more than a little cornball (and did, just a tad, in the Trilogy of Terror adaptation), is made legitimately terrifying through Matheson’s language and the sense of desperation he creates. The visuals in our head would be silly throughout, if the story gave us any time to actually consider them. Instead, we, like Amelia, are concerned only with that moment, with staying alive and escaping. That what’s happening is ludicrous almost never occurs to us—we’re too busy panicking.
Much of Matheson’s text is devoted to the interior of the apartment (by the end, you feel like you could find your way through there blindfolded) and, of course, Amelia’s emotional state rather than the appearance of the frenzied doll. The mundane setting of the story immediately lets us sink into the piece subjectively, while using an isolated young woman as protagonist/victim triggers both our sympathy and abject fear.
As “Prey” rushes towards its conclusion, we are offered a glimmer of hope, a sigh that the danger has passed. But while Amelia manages to avoid any further physical harm, she doesn’t exactly make it out of the story in one piece. The twist ending is slightly predictable, but no less chilling and effective—the perfect finale to elicit plenty of wide-eyed stares around the campfire this Halloween.
“Prey” is a classic creature tale, and a quick read, making it the perfect addition to your Halloween horror story list.
Brian L. Martin is an educator, writer, and amateur curmudgeon. An avid fan of novels, movies, and beer, he would much rather spend his time reading comics, a lifelong love since receiving a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man # 242 from Spider-Man himself in 1983. His favorite books include The Grapes of Wrath, Siddhartha, and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, which is heavy enough to be considered the only real defense weapon he has in his home. He currently lives with his wife in Uppsala, Sweden.