Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Matheson is an interesting example of the commercial writer who is so in command of his craft that he achieves, in this profound allegory, through the controlled use of various techniques and a style almost perfectly suited to it, a work of art.

Except for a few lapses, the narrative point of view is third-person, central intelligence. Serviceable phrases such as “Mann’s expression froze in terror,” “with haunted eyes,” and “his face a mask of animosity” violate that point of view by giving the reader external views of Mann, through whose perceptions all elements of the story are otherwise centralized. Perhaps Matheson the screenwriter intruded at these points; “Duel” appeared in Playboy only months before Matheson’s own adaptation, directed by then novice Steven Spielberg, showed up on television, becoming a cinematic as well as a literary classic. The very mechanics of the situation as it develops help Matheson to control his basically commercial-literary style, which now and then produces such lines as “He eyed the truck with cursory disapproval.” Given the already well-controlled Mann point of view and the ongoing context of terror, it is not necessary to follow “He’s going to kill me” with “Mann thought, horrified.”

Readers experience Matheson’s simple, precise, fast-paced plot structure as if they were being carried forward, simultaneously terrified and exhilarated, inside a swift, smooth-running machine. Readers intimately share Mann’s emotional, imaginative, and intellectual reactions as they escalate from mild irritation to sheer terror to instinctive murderous rage. Readers experience a process in which an ironic reversal turns Mann-the-victim into Mann-the-victor.

To enhance Mann’s reactions to the aggressive behavior of the truck driver, Matheson uses...

(The entire section is 756 words.)