“Prey” by Richard Matheson begins with our protagonist Amelia coming home after buying a birthday present for her boyfriend Arthur. The present is a Zuni fetish doll that is said to have the spirit of a deadly Zuni hunter trapped inside it, whose soul can only be released when the chain wound around its body comes off. Amelia calls her mother to tell her she won’t be going to the movies with her because she’s going to be spending the night with Arthur since it’s his birthday.
Her mother hasn’t even heard of Arthur and is mad at Amelia for not spending time with her even though Amelia visits her 2-3 times a week! She decides to give Amelia the silent treatment and is cold to her on the phone; Amelia is submissive to her mother and decides to cancel plans with Arthur once they hang up. Amelia is angry at her mother for controlling her life and goes to take a bath. While she’s gone the Zuni fetish doll falls off the coffee table headfirst and its gold chain slides off its body.
Amelia later returns to the living room after getting ready for her bath; by now it has gotten dark and she’s turned on the lamps. She calls Arthur to tell him that she cannot spend his birthday with him. Arthur is disappointed yet understanding of how Amelia’s mother controls her life and hangs up quietly while apologizing to her.
Amelia goes to put the doll back in its box and plans to return it to the store tomorrow since it would make no sense to give it to Arthur now. Only instead of the doll being where she left it all there is is the gold chain lying on the floor next to the coffee table.
She begins to search under the couch for the doll and gets pricked in the finger; under her fingernail is the spearhead of the Zuni doll. She searches under the couch for the rest of the Zuni doll but it’s not there. So she moves the couch but all she finds is the rest of its spear; she figures the doll must have moved when she moved the couch. She hears noises behind her and in the kitchen, she checks the kitchen; everything’s normal except that the small knife from the knife rack is missing. She sees movement out of the corner of her eye in the living room and goes to inspect it. The lamp goes out from across the room and now its dark; she sees rapid movement near the floor, then the glint of a knife and suddenly stabbing in her calves.
She tries to run to the bathroom but the throw rug underneath her slips and despite her efforts, she falls onto the floor and sees something quickly move towards her; it starts cutting her legs. She lurches her body upwards and runs into her room slamming the door shut.
She grabs the bedside telephone and thinks of who to call for help; she decides to call Arthur but before she can dial his number the door swings open and she sees something near the floor run at the bed. She pulls her legs up onto the bed and can feel it climb up the sheets; she doesn’t believe it could possibly really be the Zuni doll doing all of this until she sees its face pop up from the side of the bed.
She realizes that the doll is alive and runs to the bathroom and slams the door shut making sure to lock it. Right as she shuts it, she feels the doll banging and scratching at the door, eventually, it stops and is eerily quiet.
She cleans up her wounds and inspects herself in the mirror but the Zuni doll has learned to pick the lock. When the door is unlocked and the dolls run in she beats it with the towel and bursts down to hall trying to make it back to her room but her ankle goes out and she hits the floor; she can see the Zuni doll running at her from down the hall so she scrambles backwards into a bedroom closet. It slices her foot open so she starts to throw all her clothes on top of it and buries it in a mound of clothes.
She uses the time she has while it’s trapped to hobble to the front door and escape but the lock’s jammed and she cants open it; she screams and bangs for help, to no avail. She hears the doll escape and runs around the bedroom so she lurches herself into the living room and tries to call for help but her fingers are trembling too much to dial someone. The doll charges her from the hallway so she starts throwing stuff at it but can’t hit it and its soon jabbing her in the legs. She runs away and knocks over living room furniture to buy her some time. She rushes into the closet in the hallway and slams it shut, it stabs her in the toe from under the door.
She backs away from the door but keeps her hand firmly on the doorknob; she’s mortified when she feels it’s turning the door open against her own strength.
Her head bumps into a suitcase and she gets the idea of trapping it inside the case. She swings the door open with all her might and the doll flies into the wall; she grabs the suitcase from the top of the closet and unclasps it holding it like an open book in front of the closet doorway, it regains composure and charges inside the closet, running straight into the case. Amelia locks it inside and runs off to budge the door with an icepick. When she makes it back to the front door she sees the Zuni doll trying to saw its way out of the case with its knife. She tries to take the knife, but it twists it and yanks it downwards, slicing her thumb deep. Amelia’s urgency to unlock the door grows but the icepick snaps when she tries to push the bolt back in. She’s trapped with no escape. Just as she gets the idea to hurl the suitcase out the window and watch it tumble down the side of her high rise apartment it’s already wiggling its head and shoulders out of the case. Defeated again Amelia tries to run into the kitchen but cuts her foot on a piece of broken crockery and falls on her side. The Zuni doll is leaping on top of her and she kicks it off, running into the kitchen she slams the door shut but somethings keeping it from closing all the way; its arm is stuck in the door. With all her strength she pulls down on the door and hears the satisfying crack and splintering off its arm detach from its body. She throws the knife in the sink and lets go of the door; the doll slammed the door open, pushing her and rushing inside. She started attacking it but it wasn’t attacking her it was trying to climb into the sink; it needed its weapon. In this moment of vulnerability, she turned the gas on in the broiler and grabbed the doll which began to kick and twist. She hurled it in the broiler and slammed the door shut; it slammed against the door like a wild animal and she braced her knees and pressed her back against it to keep it from getting out; silent screaming filled her mind. By the time it was over and the kitchen smelled of burnt wood and the banging stopped she stopped leaning against the broiler and got up. But she had to know if she had gotten it or not, so she opened the broiler door and saw a black charred frame run at her; her mind was filled with screaming again only this time it was the scream of a successful hunt. She became possessed by the doll, she dialed her mother and apologized for her behavior asking her to come over and they could spend time together; her mother agreed to come over. She hung up and walked into the kitchen, grabbing the longest carving knife, then to the front door and unlocking the bolt with ease. She took off her bathrobe and danced a dance of hunting, of the joy of hunting, of the joy of the impending kill. Then she sat cross-legged in the corner, waiting for her prey to arrive.
Something I appreciated about this story was how Richard Matheson added all the characterization at the beginning of the story so we could understand each of the characters and their motives. Whenever Amelia would do something I wasn’t thinking what? Amelia wouldn’t act like that. But well Amelia’s submissive and she allows people like her mother to control her and her life so it’s no surprise she would do something like that. Matheson defined Amelia and revealed just enough about other characters early on so that when we read the rest of the story we could understand their motives, that is except for the Zuni doll who doesn’t need much more characterization other than a possessed dolls whos one motive is to kill. Here’s an example of Matheson’s characterization of Amelia and her mother through dialogue:
“Haven’t you left yet?” her mother asked. Amelia steeled herself. “Mom, I know it’s Friday night—” she started. She couldn’t finish. There was silence on the line. Amelia closed her eyes. Mom, please, she thought. She swallowed.
The snippet “Amelia steeled herself” shows that Amelia isn’t one to disobey or go against what her mother would like; her mother expects her to have already left by now but Amelia has different plans, so she must summon up her courage to tell her mother that she can’t attend. But Amelia doesn’t have enough courage to stand up to her mother and she couldn’t even finish her first sentence. “Mom, please” shows Amelia wanting her mother to not resort to her guilt tripping or manipulative tactics of making Amelia feel bad for not doing what her mother wanted. What we can take from this piece of conversation is Amelia is submissive when it comes to her mother and possibly other people.
We can also get to understand Amelia’s mother, how when Amelia disobeyed or disappoints her instead of talking about it like a normal adult with a child she gives her the silent treatment. This shows us that Amelia’s mother is possibly manipulative and most likely still controlling some aspects of her daughter’s life. The rest of the conversation is just the same pattern of Amelia trying to tell her mother what she wants but her mother continuing to be silent and cold back. Now let’s talk about the Arthur and his characterization through dialogue.
She sat on the sofa and placed the telephone on her lap. For several minutes, she stared at it. At last, with a heavy sigh, she lifted the receiver and dialed a number. ‘‘Arthur?’’ she said when he answered. “Yes?” Amelia knew the tone—pleasant but suspecting. She couldn’t speak. “Your mother,” Arthur finally said. That cold, heavy sinking in her stomach. “It’s our night together,” she explained. “Every Friday—” She stopped and waited. Arthur didn’t speak. “I’ve mentioned it before,” she said. “I know you’ve mentioned it,” he said. Amelia rubbed at her temple. “She’s still running your life, isn’t she?” he said. Amelia tensed. “I just don’t want to hurt her feelings anymore,” she said. “My moving out was hard enough on her.” “I don’t want to hurt her feelings either,” Arthur said. “But how many birthdays a year do I have? We planned on this.” “I know.” She felt her stomach muscles tightening again. ‘‘Are you really going to let her do this to you?” Arthur asked. “One Friday night out of the whole year?” Amelia closed her eyes. Her lips moved soundlessly. I just can’t hurt her feelings anymore, she thought. She swallowed. “She’s my mother,” she said. “Very well,” he said. ‘‘I’m sorry. I was looking forward to it, but—” He paused. “I’m sorry,” he said. He hung up quietly.
Matheson didn’t put much detail into Arthur’s characters since this is his only scene and he’s a minor character, but he’s important for the story to continue. Yet the conversation with Arthur shows us what type of person Arthur is and it also solidifies our image of Amelia. What we the reader gather from this conversation is that Arthur is understanding of Amelia, allowing her mom to run her life, yet he’s disappointed that Amelia cant stand up and say no. So what we gather is Arthur is a caring and understanding individual who knows about Amelia’s life.
Here’s what the conversation shows about Amelia, It shows that she truly cares about Arthur by the way she talks about his voice, and again it shows Amelia not being brave enough to disappoint Arthur and tell him that she won’t be attending his birthday party.
Conflict or action
I felt like this was a key factor that made the story so great, the amount of detail and sensory words in the action just makes these scenes so tense and vivid.
She saw it then—a rapid movement near the floor. There was a glint of metal, instantly, a stabbing pain in her right calf. Amelia gasped. She kicked out blindly. Pain again. She felt warm blood running down her skin. She turned and lunged into the hall. The throw rug slipped beneath her and she fell against the wall, hot pain lancing through her right ankle. She clutched at the wall to keep from falling, then went sprawling on her side. She thrashed around with a sob of fear. More movement, dark on dark. Pain in her left calf, then her right again. Amelia cried out. Something brushed along her thigh. She scrabbled back, then lurched up blindly, almost falling again.
Here’s just one piece of the practically 6 pages of action and here’s why it’s all great.
In this paragraph, it does not tell us clearly what is attacking Amelia at all; it’s telling it from her perspective, what she is seeing, and what she is experiencing, this makes it easier for us to slip in Amelia’s shoes which is something you want your readers to do.
If instead, he said in the beginning of the story when Amelia still didn’t know what was attacking her, “The zuni doll began stabbing her in the legs” that would automatically lose the suspense from
She saw it then—a rapid movement near the floor. There was a glint of metal, instantly, a stabbing pain in her right calf. Amelia gasped.
This first-person view adds much more intensity because we can put ourselves in her shoes.
A second thing that’s so great about the action is how fast everything happens. Matheson won’t mind dwelling on details but when it comes to action it’s rapid and as you read it feels like it’s going down in real time.
My favorite snippet from this paragraph is “pain lanced up her leg.” I mean could you not have a better way to say that there was simply pain in her leg? Matheson will occasionally throw in a great line like this in every paragraph or two and it just puts such clear and distinct image of what’s happening in the story in your brain.
The detail combined with the fast-paced Action is just such a perfect combination.
She turned and lunged into the hall. The throw rug slipped beneath her and she fell against the wall, hot pain lancing through her right ankle. She clutched at the wall to keep from falling, then went sprawling on her side.
This is so short but a lot of stuff just happened and he used some amazing word choices, like clutch, sprawling, and lunging.
So in summary with the action, its fast-paced feel makes it intense and the great descriptive words put clear images in your mind.
Something I’m going to start putting in my writing is trying to make the action have detailed and description incorporated in it without it bogging down the intensity and making sure it can flow. I will also try to characterize the protagonist at the beginning so people can understand the motives to his actions.
- Do you think the doll being able to possess you at the end was just a cop-out?
- What was something you wish they expanded on in the story or something you would have done differently if you wrote it?
- What experience did this story have on you? Did you like it? Why or why not? Did it affect the way you wrote at all?