Have you ever tried to mix two things that normally would not be mixed? It usually does not work out too well. As a kid I was dared to eat a pickle/mustard/jelly/peanut butter sandwich. It did not mix. I covered the kitchen floor in vomit. I once mixed toothpaste, ketchup, and basically any other kitchen/bathroom substance in a cup, stirred it, and drank it, thinking I was some Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde mad scientist who was going to turn into a flesh-eating creature with really cool looking teeth. Instead, I turned into a hospitalized boy. Mixing is not my thing. Maybe mixing is not your thing. But Richard Matheson certainly does a good job of it.
Shadow on the Sun by Richard Matheson is a short novel, or novella, that mixes the Wild West genre with our personal favorite, horror. This is perhaps the only good horror-Western in the literary world. Despite Matheson’s efforts in other well-written, interesting works such as I Am Legend, Hell House, and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, I found myself enjoying Shadow on the Sun the most, which came as a huge surprise.
The story begins unlike any other horror literary work in history: a peace negotiation between Apache Indians and the U.S. Government. Of course, if you know your American History (a love of mine, I must confess), then you know that things are tense from the start. Suddenly, two white men are killed, and the town of Picture City, Arizona is quick to blame the Apache Indians. After all, who else but a group of savages could be responsible for the grisly murders of two innocent, young white men? Matheson has the answer in the form of a tall, quiet stranger who dresses in all black and has decided to bring his nasty, horrifying secret to the edgy atmosphere of Picture City.
A huge part of this novel consists of Indian folklore. Shamans and strange dances and mystical chants are included. Matheson must have done his research, and I respect him for that. He takes us down unfamiliar roads, painstakingly unfamiliar, for they are a part of our history, and most of us should have already traveled them.
Like many works of Matheson’s, he brings you into a story by getting your hopes up. Perhaps there is light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps Indians and settlers can coexist, despite numerous physical, personal, and lifestyle differences. Perhaps humans aren’t so bad, right? Perhaps pessimism has no place in the world…and as you start to think these things, he pushes you down the slow road of disappointment, despair, and ruthlessness.
The only complaint I have of this book is the climax. Like a married couple no longer “feeling it”, it seems too rushed. Ahh, let’s just get it over with. The ending is definitely not worthy of the story, but can be forgiven.
An old Indian proverb states, “You can never enter the same river twice.” This proverb can be applied to Matheson and his works. With each, he brings something different. Shadow on the Sun is no exception.
But back to the mixing thing. Maybe that’s what Matheson had in mind all along? To show us things CAN mix…mustard and peanut butter…toothpaste and ketchup…horror and Western…
…people with differences.
I believe him.