between the remote frontier community of Picture City and the neighboring
Apaches. That delicate peace is shredded when the bodies of two white men are
found hideously mutilated. The angry townspeople are certain the “savages” have
broken the treaty, but Billjohn Finley, the local Indian agent, fears that
darker, more unholy forces may be at work. There’s a tall, dark stranger in
town, who rode in wearing the dead men’s clothes. A stranger, who is incredibly strong, looks neither white nor Injun, who has a scar around his neck, a stranger who may not be
knowing what comes next, not being able to understand what happens; that causes fear. Shadow on the Sun by Richard Matheson shows the
difference between suspense and intrigue.
straightforward. About six pages in, and with one glance at that first cover, you can guess what should have been the
biggest mystery of all – what mauled the two young men and how is it related to
that strange man with the scar around his neck? But that’s the thing about this
book. Knowing who is behind the killings, knowing how a man is able to brutally
mangle his victims, the knowledge that the crux of the mystery lies in
Native American mythology doesn’t make the story any less scary. Suspense – uncertainty of fact – is one quality of horror. If wielded
effectively, intrigue is a much better tool. You have all the answers you could
ask for and yet, every time the stranger steps onto the page with his scornful smile you find yourself shuddering.
(Spoiler!) Billjohn Finley is the bridge between the two cultures and you can see him struggling to make sense of the savagery to the sceptical Boutelle – the fact that Little Owl died of fear, that his remains would be burnt inside his house, that Braided Feather and his tribe would perform a cleansing ceremony to dispel the work of evil forces. The dreamlike scene when Boutelle witnesses the ceremony and learns the story of the son of Vandaih, the man-eagle, is important because that’s when a part of his mind opens up to the possibility of some truth in the myth, because all the details start falling neatly in place, the man and his scar, the shaman, the Night Doctor, the mutilated bodies, the Indians’ obvious uncontrollable fear of the stranger, the inhuman shrieks in the forest. (end of Spoiler!)
The stranger, the tall large man with the scar around his neck, from his physical description and his alienated behaviour, his desperation, his unthinking ruthlessness, is reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster. The fact that he’s looking for a Night Doctor only strengthens the impression. Whether he carries the blame for what he was turned into is not a question to address in this story, but the likeness could not be unintentional.
The thing that makes this book special, like the other two I’ve read by Matheson, is the clean-cut precision of the story. It begins mid-action and ends on just the right note, leaving us to conjure up a suitable tying up of loose ends. The plot is crisp, the mood evocative, and every word seems deliberately chosen to make you shiver. A nice, short read by a great writer – recommended by Stephen King as the author who influenced him the most as a writer – what more could you want?