‘The Shrinking Man’ can be seen superficially as the very basic tale of a man who shrinks one seventh of an inch a day, with all that may entail. The novel, however is far more than it may at first appear.
What makes this novel more than a sensationalist pulp-fiction work is that Matheson concentrates on the psychological and social implications which first make themselves felt when Scott realises that his wife is taller than he is.
We then embarks on a gradual process of emasculation, exploring not only Scott’s reactions to the shrinking of his body but the changing attitudes of his wife, daughter and the outside world.
Matheson cleverly exploits symbolically and metaphorically issues central to male pride and the integrity of one’s masculinity. His wife unconsciously begins treating him as a child, and even driving a car (another benchmark of American masculinity) becomes difficult. Scott’s physical impotence in these situations is paralleled by his inability to make love to his wife.
Scott briefly regains a degree of self-esteem when he meets a female midget at a local circus, but this hiatus is short-lived.
The redemption, if we can call it such, comes in the intervening ‘final week’ sections, in which Scott, having been accidentally locked out of the house and fallen into a cellar from which he cannot escape, is forced to find ways to survive with minimal food and water. Tellingly, Scott also has to do daily battle with a Black Widow spider which - we are reminded in the text – is female; the males of the species being consumed by their partners after mating.
The novel is only slightly let-down by the science involved, the explanation for Scott’s condition being that exposure to a combination of radioactive sprays was causing his body to expel nitrogen at a constant rate.
But then this was the Nineteen-Fifties, and it was America, so any explanation regarding radioactivity was guaranteed to add an additional frisson of paranoia.
It is undoubtedly a minor classic and deserves to be re-filmed by a director who can concentrate on the issues that Matheson was actually writing about.