Friday, April 4, 2008

Middle Shelf Story: Richard Matheson’s "The Distributor"

A few miles from where I live, a man recently assaulted his neighbor during an argument and ended up being fatally shot. They had been quarreling over the neighbor’s spotty lawn care. My parents live in a gated community that’s largely isolated from the hustle and bustle of south Florida. A couple streets over from them, a woman pulled into her garage and found her husband swinging from the end of a rope. During my awkward adolescent years, two family friends remained steadfastly encouraging, one a theology professor, the other a guitarist. Both were arrested for sexual crimes against underage girls. The suburbs probably don’t automatically leap to your mind as a location for such horrors, but that’s where these all took place. The suburbs also the setting of Richard Matheson’s terrifying little short story “The Distributor.”

Time to move.

He’d found a small, furnished house on Sylmar Street. The Saturday morning he moved in, he went around the neighborhood introducing himself.

“Good morning,” he said to the old man pruning ivy next door. “My name is Theodore Gordon. I just moved in.”
Theodore Gordon is new to the neighborhood. He’s quiet and affable and even takes time to introduce himself to everyone. He shakes the hand of his elderly next door neighbor. He learns that that the thin woman’s husband is a traveling salesman. He overhears a mother scolding her teenage son for staying out too late with his girlfriend, whose family also happens to live on the same street. He meets the unattractive Baptist spinster and her elderly father. Then he goes back home and gets to work. Theodore is in distribution, but not distribution of manufactured goods. Theodore distributes suffering.

At exactly two-fifteen A.M. Theodore slipped outside, pulled up one of Joseph Alston’s longest ivy plants and left it on his sidewalk.

In the morning, as he left the house, he saw Walter Morton, Jr., heading for the McCann house with a blanket, a towel and a portable radio. The old man was picking up his ivy.

“Was it pulled up?” asked Theodore.

Joseph Alston grunted.

“So
that
was it,” said Theodore.

“What?”
the old man looked up.

“Last night,” said Theodore, “I heard some noise out here. I looked out and saw a couple of boys.”

“You seen their faces?” asked Alston, his face hardening.
At first Theodore’s meddling is minor enough. A garden is defaced. An ad appears for someone’s car at a ludicrously low price. A lawn mower disappears from one yard and turns up in another. But his interferences start to grow more and more malicious. He secretly poisons a dog. He scrawls racial epithets on a front door. He drugs a woman and snaps sexually compromising photos. As he turns to forgery and arson and extortion, his neighbors begin to tear one another apart. Friendships collapse. The police are called in. People begin to die, some from natural causes, some murdered, some by their own hands.

Pale morning mist engulfed Sylmar Street. Theodore moved through it silently. Under the back porch of the Jeffersons’ house he set fire to a box of damp papers. As it began to smolder he walked across the yard and, with a single knife stroke, slashed apart the rubber pool. He heard it pulsing water on the grass as he left. In the alley he dropped a book of matches that read Putnam’s Wines and Liquors.

A little after six that morning he woke to the howl of sirens and felt the small house tremble at the heavy trucks passing by. Turning on his side, he yawned, and mumbled, “Goody.”
Matheson likely didn’t intend to communicate a grand lesson with the short. Written in 1958, it’s a prime example of old-school horror pulp, a spare, lean story with an amoral ending that jolts like an electric current. But it’s quite easy to glean a moral if you’re so inclined. After all, loving your neighbor is hard to do. And not because of something innate in the suburbs, but because of the horror we carry in our own hearts.

You can read “The Distributor” in Nightmare At 20,000 Feet: Horror Stories By Richard Matheson
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9 comments:

Brian Schwartz said...

Matheson is the most prolific writer that no one knows about. While those of us who appreciate the quality of great genre fiction -- both literary and cinematic -- know his greatness, most people couldn't identify him with is work.

Loren Eaton said...

Brian,

I am consistently amazed that a man who has had some many of his works made into movies is completely unknown by the general populace. Everyone watched Will Smith killing vampires -- I mean, zombies -- and no one know that Matheson wrote the original (and far superior) story. Boggles the mind.

davidmbrowndotcom said...

Yes, it's pretty depressing that most people haven't heard of Matheson. But we're lucky that a few superior souls out there have.

Loren Eaton said...

Fortunately his stuff keeps getting made into movies, and that may cause a few folks to discover him. One can hope, at least.

Mike D. said...

You've inspired me. I found your site while searching for a page that had the entire, chilling story "The Distributor". I read it years ago and many times in Alfred Hitchcock's "Stories to be Read With the Doors Locked", and I can no longer find that book (time to call Mom and Dad to search my old bedroom). I think I'm going to try to find a Richard Matheson anthology to buy.

Loren Eaton said...

Mike,

I love to hear that! Happy reading to you.

By the way, seems Matheson has a collection of all his stories. You might want to check it out.

Gue said...

I have that Hitchcock anthology. "The Distributor" is my favorite short story in that collection, and I wish Hollywood made a movie on it. I'm sure it would make waves...

Loren Eaton said...

Thanks for stopping by, Gue! You know, I understand that "The Distributor" was the inspiration for Stephen King's Needful Things. It's a decent novel, but I still like Matheson better.

Jeff Patke said...

Can be done