The Funeral by Richard Matheson

The Funeral by Richard Matheson

 

This short, delightful tale from Matheson is funny, sweet, and pays homage to our favorite monsters. Strip it bare of the ostentatious characters though and this a story of a lesson learned, a story where man is not far removed from the monster and our initial prejudices ring unfounded.

As a student of creative writing, there is something here to teach as well. A subtle but undeniable character arc occurs in ten short pages if one is astute enough to note the difference in posture, presentation and prose used by the author to describe his “protagonist” Morton Silkline.

We first meet Mr. Silkline in a flare of fancy ten dollar words describing his “Cut-Rate Catafalque”. The name of the business implies that this flamboyance is in fact a façade. Silkline presents himself with the air of a high class, sympathetic host to the new “Grieved One” who has entered his office. He clasps his fingers in front of him placidly and wears his “funereal welcome” smile. He crosses the room on “whispering feet” and extends a “flaccid fingered hand”. The description here is so spot on if you have ever been an unfortunate guest at a funeral, you have likely been greeted by this man. Silkline’s entire script during the initial consultation with Ludwig Asper drips with the saccharine falseness of a used car salesman. Silkline’s fictional self is betrayed however, by his effort to restrain himself by rubbing his hands together like a fly about to enjoy a tasty meal and attempting to hide a boyish grin as he begins to understand the possible windfall from this particular patron’s loss.

We are at the bottom of the third page when Silkline finally asks for the name of the deceased. It is then that we learn Ludwig Asper is not your average grieved one. He is planning a funeral for himself. He tells an angry Silkline (angry because he thinks this has all been a joke and he is about to lose a potential jackpot) that he “never had a proper going off” and he regrets that. Asper wants to make up for it. Now we know that he is one of the undead. His red eyes, request for removal of the mirrors and “flapping out a small window” is enough for the reader to determine that Mr. Silkline is doing business with a vampire.

Silkline manages to pull himself together (presumably due to the cash he is expecting for his services) in order to prepare the “Eternal Rest Room”—the largest and likely most expensive parlor per Asper’s requests. (This makes one wonder what the cheaper rooms might be called-The Long Term Rest Room, The Pay-By-The-Hour Rest Room?). Silkline is understandably frightened and intimidated by Asper’s guests which include based on Matheson’s description, another vampire, a witch with her familiar, Ygor the hunchback lackey, a werewolf, a waxen-faced little man (a goblin perhaps?), and a half dozen more vampires. Morton Silkline is invited to the ceremony and ends up sitting between the witch and the waxen-faced man. The witch is the most outspoken, reminding the reader of a favorite crazy aunt who embarrasses the rest of the family during any important event. Asper, comfortable in his gold-trimmed casket reminds her of his seriousness. He wants this funeral to be a respectable, somber affair. Although the room is full of monsters, they behave as any family might.

As the service progresses, Jenny, the witch heckles the white-haired vampire performing the ceremony and is once again, reminded to be silent. The wolfman interrupts the funeral to leave and Silkline hears his claws running down the hall. The waxen-faced man’s frequent comments of “tasty” along with the rowdiness of his cohorts frustrate the white-haired vampire. Jenny, the witch chimes in one last time and Asper throws her out. Not one to leave quietly, Jenny uses her magic to set the rug and draperies on fire. The elder vampire turns to vapor and comes at her. The funeral erupts into mass chaos as chairs are overturned and vampires turn into bats. Poor Ludwig Asper begs for respect from his coffin while the waxen-faced man taunts Silkline with his trademark “tasty” comment. With this Silkline passes out thus ending the funeral service both for himself and the reader. Again, I have seen humans erupt into chaos like this at funerals and weddings. Nothing monstrous about it. I think this is where the brilliance of Matheson shines. We were presented with some grizzly monsters who behave just like us!

When we next catch up with Morton Silkline, he is back at work, still shaken from his most unusual but likely most profitable service yet. He is slumped in his chair still twitching occasionally although it had been a week since the monstrous funeral. His twitching however, doesn’t interfere with his ability to read the thank you note from Asper or to lovingly caress the pile of gold coins on his desk. He decides that “all things considered, the affair had not been really as bad as all—“. His thoughts are interrupted by an amorphous being entering his office.

He is of course taken aback by the tentacled thing in front of him but is told he has been recommended by a friend. Silkline’s nerves are calmed by the Midas touch of the gold on his desk and here is where we see a change. No longer the false-faced funereal-grinning cut-rate casket saleman, he does away with all the pomp and circumstance and only three paragraphs later, he asks the name of the deceased.

The greedy coffin salesmen is embracing who he really is. I felt and hoped that if the story had gone on he may have come to discover the importance of sincere sympathy over a big sale but this short story only leads us to speculate what Silkline might take away from his paranormal experiences. We do at least get to see a change in countenance and a more “to-the-point” style.

 

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6 thoughts on “The Funeral by Richard Matheson

  1. Joe-la, I think you hit it on the head. I’m glad you saw the arc in Silkline, but I must be too jaded to have seen it the first read through. To me, all he did was discover a new client base, not how to care or accept the “Grieved Ones” as anything more than ring of the till.

    I struggled with finding 500+ words for a short story, but you’ve shown me how it’s done! As I’ve mentioned on other blogs, I don’t read too deeply into stories, especially short ones. For me, they’re an opportunity to get away from the day-in/day-out struggles and monotony of novel writing.

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  2. Joe-La, I loved your review of this short story. You definitely got your money’s worth out of it! Good catch on the character arc, too. Although I did notice Matheson’s changes in his description of Silkline, you were astute enough to recognize it as a character arc. You were right, too — this “monster funeral” reminded me of a lot of “human” funerals! Nice Post.

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  3. Anonymous says:

    Well Jo-la you went way deeper into this than I ever did. I was wondering if there was any sort of deeper aspects and apparently there are. So, I congratulate you on really not just looking under the rock but also digging into the mud.

    I kinda felt there may be some aspects of prejudice going on with him and the monsters, but then just thought about it being a written version, of the Universal Studios Monsters classic collection without the invisible man and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

    Anyways, great review.

    -AD

    -P.S. Did you wonder how a tentacled alien thing knew a vampire? I think that was my deepest question in the whole story! haha!

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  4. I enjoyed the science in this piece but I’m not in the medical field. To me, it felt more like the cheesy 1950’s take on horror/sci-fi explanations. “Twilight Zone” and classic Universal “Frankenstein” type science where the audience believes for the sake of being entertained over realism. Matheson actually took more time and effort to explain his world than many others at the time. It would have been far easier to just blame the state of the world on pure supernatural vampirism. Instead, he made an attempt to twist it into a real disease. Yes, there was many holes in the actual science, but then again it was the 50’s and audiences at the time probably took little if any note on the actual realism of the bacteria. We see much better versions of the “virus turns man into monster” in more modern times, so I at least give a nod to Matheson for helping to blaze the trail for that variety of horror. Still, as a doctor I’m sure this whole aspect of the book was frustrating just as much as the sexism irritated the hell out of me.

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  5. Ok. Here’s he real comment for this post. Sorry about the prior confusion. My brain works in a dreamlike state at least 80% of the time. Great for story ideas, not so much for paying attention to the real world around me.

    I like that you brought up Silkline’s change throughout the story. He was greedy from the start, but the ending we see him making the choice between his greed and fear. The Midas touch won out. I’m constantly astounded by the things people will stoop to for money. His career as an undertaker taking advantage of other’s grief, greed is a necessary trait. However, he passes a threshold when he agrees to work with monsters. His own safety take a backseat to the fortune he could be making. What if this next creature is displeased with the service? Will he become a meal or be torn to shreds if he fails to impress? For Silkline, greed exceeds the natural fear that would lead to self-preservation. Quite a statement Matheson makes regarding humanity with this character.

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