Richard Matheson is one of the most influential writers ever to grace the field of speculative fiction. He has probably touched a greater audience than any other living writer in his field, with the possible exception of Stephen King. You don’t believe me, I know. He can’t be that good, you say, because you don’t even know his name. It’s true that he isn’t as famous as Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, or Chris Carter. But every one of these better-known artists has named Matheson as a major influence and inspiration. And unless you’ve managed to completely ignore television, film and horror fiction for the last forty-five years, you definitely know his work.
Ever seen “Duel”, Steven Spielberg’s first feature-length movie? Sure you have, they show it on TV at least once a month. Richard Matheson wrote it. “The Incredible Shrinking Man” - or “Woman”? Richard Matheson. The Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” - you know, the one where the guy sees the gremlin eating the plane’s engines? Richard Matheson wrote that, along with most of the other really good Twilight Zone episodes. “What Dreams May Come”? You guessed it. “The Omega Man”? Ditto. That Star Trek episode where Kirk was split into good Kirk and evil Kirk? Matheson. And a hundred other great moments on TV and film. Matheson wrote almost every one of the scariest scenes on television - the stories people remember forty years later and say wistfully, “they don’t make scary shows on TV anymore”. Remember the horrible African doll chasing Karen Black in “Trilogy of Terror”? Yeah. Matheson. Just about every horror writer since then has tried to rewrite that story, and none of them did it half as well. Hang on, let me go back to the beginning. You’ll see.
Richard Matheson was born in Allendale, NJ on February 20, 1926. He started writing as a child, publishing several stories and poems in a local newspaper. His first professional sale, the short story “Born of Man and Woman”, debuted in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1950. Like many of his works to follow, it was a blend of dark fantasy and science fiction. Matheson himself has said that he never meant for it to be science fiction, yet it has been recognised as an SF classic many times since its publication.
In the next few years he wrote numerous short stories, which were very successful, and two commercially successful but rather forgettable novels. Then, in 1954, he wrote “I Am Legend”, which was a breakout hit and is generally regarded as one of the finest vampire novels ever written. Using an average of one adjective every two paragraphs, Matheson somehow manages to project a multitude of emotions into the story of Robert Neville, the last ‘normal’ male alive in a world full of vampires. The book is only 174 pages long, but it’s astonishingly rich. Using science fiction rationalizations to explain one of the great horror tropes, “I Am Legend” rises far above the pack in both genres. In a word, classic. It has been adapted for film three times (with another version presently stuck in development Hell), but none of the adaptations have even come close to the power of the novel. George Romero’s film “Night of the Living Dead” is suspiciously similar to “I Am Legend”, and is a better adaptation than any of the credited versions.
Matheson followed “Legend” with the novel “The Shrinking Man”, another huge success. This time the hero found himself alienated by his changing size. Once again, the simplest of horror plots - the hero, a businessman named Scott Carey, finds himself shrinking away at a rate of 1/8" per day and that’s the whole story - is used as a springboard for Matheson to explore some surprisingly deep themes about modern society. A few dramatic confrontations, such as the battle between the hero and a black widow, made it an instant best-seller, but what really drives the book is Carey’s inner battle against a feeling of helplessness, and his search for a self-definition that does not rely on size or material success. Matheson immediately sold the film rights to Universal, with the stipulation that he would write the screenplay.
Writing for movies had been his goal from the very beginning, and from this time onwards, Matheson was constantly in demand to write adaptations and original screenplays for numerous horror films and TV projects. He began by writing many episodes for The Twilight Zone, amongst them fan favourites such as “Third from the Sun”. This episode, based on Matheson’s own short story, introduced the concept of a group of interstellar refugees fleeing to the Earth. No, it wasn’t Glen A. Larson’s idea. Following his work on Twilight Zone, Matheson was hired to adapt Poe’s works for film by American International Pictures. Then he co-wrote the wonderful “Burn, Witch, Burn”, an adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s great modern Gothic novel “Conjure Wife”.
A series of minor works followed “Burn, Witch, Burn”, with Matheson finding steady employment and occasional breakthroughs, like the quintessential Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within” and the TV movie “Duel”, based on a novelette Matheson originally published in Playboy and directed by the unknown Steven Spielberg. But his next shining moment came in 1973, with “The Night Stalker”.
“The Night Stalker” was not an original Matheson work. It was based on an unpublished (and, according to Stephen King, quite bad) novel by Jeff Rice. But the adaptation bears the trademark Matheson touch. “Stalker” is a tale of a reporter named Carl Kolchak, who works in Las Vegas and uncovers the story of a vampire stalking the city. It has become one of the all-time classics of television horror, spawning a sequel (“The Night Strangler”, also written by Matheson) and a series which lasted only 20 episodes before cancellation. Matheson refused to write any scripts for the series, perhaps understanding that the basic concept of a reporter criss-crossing America and finding monsters in every city was horribly flawed and doomed to failure. Somewhere along the line, however, the idea made enough of an impression on the young Chris Carter that he would later borrow Matheson’s name for a character in his own version of “Kolchak, the Night Stalker” - the X-Files.
Matheson spent the next two years churning out teleplays and short stories, most of which were decent but not classics. “Trilogy of Terror”, broadcast in 1975, was the major standout. After “Trilogy”, Matheson began to lighten his work load and concentrate on novels once more. “Bid Time Return” sold well and was made into the movie “Somewhere in Time”. “What Dreams May Come” made a relatively small splash, and had to wait twenty years for a film adaptation. After “Dreams”, Matheson began a slow fade into relative obscurity. During the Nineties he wrote several Western novels, virtually disappearing from the specfic genres until two new adaptations of his work came out - “Stir of Echoes”, which was a good movie that won critics’ praise but got demolished at the box office by “The Sixth Sense”, and “What Dreams May Come”, which polarized viewers into ‘loved it’ and ‘hated it’ camps almost equally. At present a new adaptation is in the works - Eddie Murphy is remaking “The Incredible Shrinking Man”. Presumably this will be similar to Murphy’s reworkings of “The Nutty Professor” and “Dr. Dolittle”, both extremely loose adaptations to say the least. This will undoubtedly annoy Richard Matheson, as do most of the adaptations of his work. He is happy with all the movies that have been made from his own screenplays, but actively dislikes those that other writers have adapted. However, this doesn’t keep him from selling the rights to almost every story he writes.
The following were all adapted by other writers from Matheson’s stories and novels -
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING:
- “Danse Macabre” - Stephen King, 1981
Richard Matheson died at his home on June 23, 2013. He was 87 years old.