Richard Matheson’s Shadow on the Sun

No matter how much Richard Matheson I’ve read — and I’ve read a lot — it always turns out that there’s a bit more out there that I’ve managed to miss!

If you aren’t familiar with Richard Matheson‘s name, you’re nevertheless familiar with his work — starting in 1950, he has penned countless science fiction and horror tales, many of which have been filmed as major motion pictures and Twilight Zone episodes.  I did a “horror masters” post on him some time back, noting his most memorable works such as Duel, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, I am Legend, and The Shrinking Man.  He also was a significant influence in the creation of The Night Stalker movies and television series in the 1970s, having penned the screenplay of the two films.

Matheson is a prolific writer who has written in many genres, but unfortunately many of his novels have been hard to find.  Recently, though, I stumbled across a reprint of a novel of his that I hadn’t read before, Shadow on the Sun (1994):

The novel was written during his “western” phase of writing in the 1990s, during which he wrote a number of novels about gunslingers.  Shadow on the Sun is set in the Wild West, but it is also a horror novel!

The story is set in and around the ramshackle town of Picture City in southwest Arizona, sometime not too many years after the Civil War.  The novel begins as a new, unstable peace treaty is forged a mile outside of town between the U.S. Government and a tribe of very belligerent Apaches.  Representing the Apaches is Chief Braided Feather; the U.S. is represented by David Boutelle from the Department of the Interior, and Picture City is represented by the local Indian agent, Billjohn Finley.

Though tense, the treaty seems to go off without a hitch; however, two men go missing at about the same time it is ratified.  When the men’s corpses are found later, horribly mutilated, the locals assume the Indians have violated the truce.

Billjohn suspects otherwise, though: coincident with the murders, a stranger has arrived in Picture City.  The man has a slash across his neck that he claims arose from his decapitation — and he arrives wearing the dead men’s clothes.

In order to save the treaty and prevent bloodshed, Billjohn struggles to understand the mission of the sinister stranger.  It quickly becomes clear that he is dealing with a creature that is both more and less than human, and that the fate of more than Picture City may be at stake if he fails to stop it.

The novel is short and quite enjoyable.  It does seem a little “ordinary”, however, and there are no particularly big surprises or “wow” moments in it.  I would not be surprised to find that Matheson wrote this novel to use up some of the ideas that he didn’t use in his earlier novels, Journal of the Gun Years (1992) and The Gunfight (1993).  The tale probably suffers in part because I’m naturally comparing it to Matheson’s classic novels such as The Shrinking Man, I am Legend, and Hell House.

It is still a good novel, nevertheless, and worth reading for those who are fans of unconventional horror stories or westerns!

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