Today I’ve reviewed the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth story in my series on the science fictional media landscape of the future. In Richard Matheson’s horror short “Through Channels” (1951), a terrifying entity comes through the TV! Robert F. Young, in “Audience Reaction” (1954), speculates on a new form of virtual reality immersion in which desires become enmeshed in the narrative.
Both stories I cover engage with the newly popular entertainment medium of television. According to Gary R. Edgerton’s magisterial monograph The Columbia History of American Television (2007), no “technology before TV every integrated faster into American life” (xi). As I’ve discussed TV’s impact on the American and British family, entertainment and free time, and its intersection with brainwashing and fears of Communism at length, I won’t belabor the point here. Check out my reviews of Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” (1951), Brian W. Aldiss’ “Panel Game” (1955), Ann Warren Griffith’s “Captive Audience” (1953), if you want additional 1950s historical context.
Previously: Two stories by Damon Knight: “Thing of Beauty” (1958) and “You’re Another” (1955).
Up Next: TBD
Richard Matheson’s “Through Channels” first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas (April 1951). You can read it online here.
Detective James Taylor and Sergeant Louis Ferazzio conduct (and record) their interrogation of a young boy named Leo. “Come on, son, we’re trying to help you” they cajole–trying to draw out the horrifying story. Deep trauma laces the proceedings. The police, eager to discover what happened, attempt to comfort Leo but also convince him to reveal what he saw. In between the sounds of the tape recorder that turns on and off between scenes, the fragments emerge. Leo describes how his parents spent the evening watching TV, and how he went out to watch movies at the theater instead… And when he came home and he saw the flickering set in the darkness: “they never used no light when they watched TV” (51). And heading to bed, the smells beset him. And the words on the TV screen.
I’ve been on a Matheson kick as of late! I recently reviewed his short story masterpiece “Pattern for Survival” (1955), that charts a retreat into the realms of pulp in survive the decaying post-apocalyptic cityscape, and needing no introduction, the iconic I Am Legend (1954). “Through Channels” demonstrates Matheson’s ability to weave a spell with only a few pages–and, in this instance, with only short lines of dialogue and sound effects. The story effectively recasts the newfangled technology of entertainment and relaxation as a relaying device of unexplainable devastation.
Perhaps due to the impact of horror films like Videodrome (1983), Benny’s Video (1992), Pulse (2001), and Ringu (1998) (to name but a few), nothing about this story will shock modern sensibilities. However, “Through Channels” feels like a primordial kernel of TV-related SF-ish horror that will be remade and reworked in countless later forms. It’s punchy. It’s historically important. It’s minimalist in its construction of otherworldly terror and hyper-gore. I’m curious what readers of the day thought about this one!
Robert F. Young’s “Audience Reaction” first appeared in Science Fiction Quarterly, ed. Robert A. W. Lowndes (February 1954). You can read it online here.
The first mass-produced “telempathy set represents a tremendous step in the evolution of mass-media” (74). The early prototype sets and programs still contain unintended (and revelatory) hiccups. “Audience Reaction” takes the form of a group (two couples) of participants in an early telempathy narrative immersion experience straight from the pages of the SF pulps. The program is a SF thriller in the “deserted section of the City of the Red Sands, Mars” (74). Interplanetary police track down the main character–that the viewer of any gender can “play”–fresh off a sentence in a grim labor camp on the run from the Interplanetary Police. They avoid the hunters and search for their contact (and love interest). Unfortunately, who becomes the love interest isn’t always the spouse! Intermixed throughout are selections from an invented secondary source analysis of the history of the device.
Young’s story fits into large body of futuristic post-TV sensory immersion stories. Notable examples I’ve covered include John MacDonald’s “Spectator Sport” (1950), in which a virtual reality device is a perverse formulation of future capitalism that replays pulp escapism; Lino Aldani’s “Good Night, Sophie” (1963, trans. 1973) where a machine reprograms the viewer to follow the “correct” narrative; and John Brunner’s “Fair” (1956) in which a machine has the possibility to expand empathy for the other.
Young extrapolates that pulp science fiction will play a similar role as the Western in early TV programming: “An interesting parallel can be drawn between early TV and early TE. The former repeated the blood-and-thunder western-sagas of the 2-D’s, while the latter repeated the blood-and-thunder space-sagas of the 3-D’s” (80). “Audience Reaction” follows a different pattern from the archetypal doom-and-gloom 50s stories like John MacDonald’s “Spectator Sport” (1950). Rather than force participants to play a particular pulp story that subsumes the self, Young’s telempathy sets allow the viewer’s own subconscious passions and hatreds to influence the backstories and identity of the characters. As the invented secondary source quotations lay out, the psychoanalytic properties of the device (the realization of “true” desire) allow the participant to create a “‘simulated’ reality” more “valid than the ‘actual’ reality” (82).
“Audience Reaction” is a solid story! Young ends up writing a smart commentary on escapism and pulp as a vehicle in self-realization. As the invented secondary source quoted throughout is filed under “Decadence Literature Files, Reintegration Center” (82), it’s implied that the “simulated reality” conveyed by the device is retroactively considered harmful by later generations.
Somewhat recommended for fans of this theme and 50s SF more broadly.
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2 thoughts on “Short Story Reviews: Richard Matheson’s “Through Channels” (1951) and Robert F. Young’s “Audience Reaction” (1954)”
I haven’t read either of those two stories. I’ll definitely have to track down both those Matheson stories you’ve recently reviewed.
I can’t remember — did I ever suggest Asimov’s “Dreaming is a Private Thing” to you for this series?
I feel like we talked about it at some point — maybe when I acquired an Asimov collection in the last two years or so.
That said, it’s not on my list! What is it about?
Both Matheson stories are only a few pages long. I look forward to your thoughts on both.