Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Late Great Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson died 23 June 2013 at the age of 87. Although often called a science fiction writer, he is perhaps better described as a fantasist, as his works span the gamut from science fiction to fantasy to horror. He was the author of such novels as I Am Legend and Hell House, the screenwriter of such films as Master of the World (1961) and The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and one of the writers on the classic television show The Twilight Zone (including the episode as  "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet").  Quite simply, he was arguably one of the most influential writers of the 20th Century.

Richard Matheson was born on 20 February 1926 in Allendale, New Jersey. He grew up in Brooklyn. He graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1943 before serving in the United States Army during World War II. After the war he attended the University of Missouri, Columbia, from which he graduated with a degree in journalism in 1949. He made his first professional sale only a year later, in 1950. That sale was the short story "Born of Man and Woman", published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Summer 1950.

Richard Matheson was not long in establishing himself as a writer. The year 1950 saw the publication of two more of his short stories, "Third from the Sun (later adapted as an episode of The Twilight Zone) and "The Waker Dreams". The year 1953 would see the release of his first two published novels, Someone is Bleeding and Fury on Sunday. It was in 1954 that the novel that would make him famous was published. I Am Legend proved to be a success upon its initial publication, and has been adapted to film three times (The Last Man on Earth in 1964, The Omega Man in 1971, and I Am Legend in 2007).  While Mr. Matheson referred to the monsters in I Am Legend as "vampires", the novel would inspire the entire genre of "living dead" movies that began with Night of the Living Dead (1968). 

Throughout his lifetime Richard Matheson would see the publication of many more of his short stories, including "Death Ship (adapted as an episode of The Twilight Zone)"; "Little Girl Lost (adapted as an episode of The Twilight Zone)", and "Button, Button (adapted as an episode of the Eighties Twilight Zone revival and the 2009 film The Box). He wrote many more novels, including The Shrinking Man (adapted as the film The Incredible Shrinking Man in 1957), A Stir of Echoes (adapted as the film A Stir of Echoes in 1999); Hell House (adapted as the film The Legend of Hell House in 1973);  What Dreams May Come (adapted as What Dreams May Come in 1998), The Memoirs of Wild Bill Hickok, and Generations (his final novel).

While Richard Matheson was well known for his novels and short stories, he may be equally well known for his work in television. His first written work for television was an episode of Studio 57, "Young Couples Only", in 1955. In the late Fifties he wrote episodes of such shows as Buckskin, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Have Gun--Will Travel, Bourbon Street Beat, Cheyenne, and Lawman. His stories "Disappearing Act (under the title "And When the Sky Was Opened") and "Third From the Sun" were both adapted as episodes of The Twilight Zone in its first season. It was that same season that Richard Matheson would write his first episode of The Twilight Zone, "The Last Flight (based on his own story "Flight"). He would go onto become one of the show's most prolific writers, contributing 15 more episodes. Among the episodes he wrote was "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", one of the best known episodes of the show.

In the Sixties Richard Matheson continued writing for The Twilight Zone, in addition to writing episodes of such shows as Thriller, Combat, Star Trek (the episode "The Enemy Within", in which Kirk is split into good and evil halves), The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., and Journey into the Unknown. The Seventies saw his stories adapted for The Night Gallery and he also wrote episodes of the show. He also developed the short lived show Circle of Fear and wrote many of its episodes. He wrote segments of the TV movies Trilogy of Terror (1975) and Dead of Night (1977), as well as episodes of the mini-series The Martian Chronicles. His best known television work of the Seventies may have been the teleplays for the TV movies The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973) which would lead to the TV show Kolchak: The Night Stalker (in which Richard Matheson had no involvement). The Eighties into the Nineties saw Richard Matheson write episodes of the Eighties version of The Twilight Zone as well as Amazing Stories.

Richard Matheson also worked extensively in film, and often he was the one who adapted his own novels and short stories. He also wrote original screenplays, as well as adapted the works of others. The first screenplay ever written by Richard Matheson was The Incredible Shrinking Man, based on his novel The Shrinking Man. In the late Fifties he followed it with The Beat Generation (1959) and House of Usher (1960). In the Sixties he wrote the films Master of the World (1961--based on the work by Jules Verne), Pit and the Pendulum (1961--based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe), Burn, Witch, Burn (1962--based on Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963--based on Edgar Allan Poe's poem), The Comedy of Terrors (1963--based on his novel of the same name), The Last Man on Earth (1964--based on I Am Legend), Fanatic (1965), The Young Warriors (1967--based on his novel The Beardless Warriors), The Devil Rides Out (1968--based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley), and De Sade (1969).

In the Seventies he wrote the screenplays for the films Duel (1971--based on his story of the same name), The Legend of Hell House (1973--based on his novel Hell House), and Somewhere in Time (1980-based on his novel Bid Time Return). Several of Richard Matheson's works were adapted with screenplays not written by him, including Cold Sweat (1970--based on his novel Ride the Nightmare), The Omega Man (based on I Am Legend), Les seins de glace (1974-based on his novel "Someone is Bleeding"), What Dreams May Come (1998--based on his novel  of the same name) , Stir of Echoes (1999--based on his novel of the same name), I Am Legend (based on the novel of the same name), The Box (2009--based on the story "Button, Button"), and Real Steel (2011--based on his short story "Steel").

 There can be no doubt that Richard Matheson was one of the most influential writer of the 20th Century. His novel I Am Legend alone would have a tremendous impact on Anglo-American pop culture. As Stephen King was quoted in Mr. Matheson's obituary in The New York Times, "Matheson fired the imaginations of three generations of writers. Without his I Am Legend, there would have been no Night of the Living Dead; without Night of the Living Dead, there would have been no Walking Dead, 28 Days Later or World War Z."

That having been said, Mr. Matheson's influence went well beyond the "living dead" genre of horror movies. Alongside Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson pioneered combining the fantastic with the everyday. In Richard Matheson's world a man might see a gremlin tearing up the wing of something as common as an aeroplane (in his Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet") or someone in their car might be stalked by a mysterious and clearly malevolent 1955 Peterbilt 281 Tanker (as in Duel) or someone might be offered millions of dollars for simply pressing a button, but at an enormous cost (the story "Button, Buttton").

Not only did Mr. Matheson pioneer combining the fantastic with everyday life, but his works often dealt with the angst of the post-war world. The Shrinking Man saw a suburban male shrunk by a combination of pesticides and radioactivity to the point that even a spider is a real threat to him. In his short story "Prey" a New York apartment dweller found herself stalked by a murderous Zuni doll. In the novel A Stir of Echoes an ordinary man suddenly finds himself endowed with psychic abilities, not only learning secrets of people that he would rather not know, but even hearing from those who were dead and gone. Given that Mr. Matheson seamlessly blended the fantastic and the everyday, and further imbued his stories and novels with modern day angst, it should be little surprise that writers from Stephen King to Anne Rice count him as an influence. 

Many of the news stories on Richard Matheson's death described him as a "science fiction writer", and I suspect the average person probably associated him more with the genre of horror, but neither description was quite accurate. Although both I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man can be described as science fiction, they can also be described as horror as well. Yet other works by Richard Matheson belong to other genres. The film The Beat Generation was an odd combination of an examination of beatniks and film noir. His novel The Beardless Warriors was a World War II novel centred on young infantrymen. What Dreams May Come can be considered fantasy. Indeed, while not as well known as his other works, Richard Matheson even wrote Westerns. In the Fifties he published several Western short stories and in the Nineties he wrote several Western novels. Richard Matheson worked in several genres, and often blended genres in ways other writers would not. Bid Time Return was a science fiction novel, a romance novel, and a period piece.

In the end Richard Matheson was not simply a science fiction writer. He was actually a writer who defied genre categorisation, one adept at exploiting the anxieties of the present day and blending the fantastic with the ordinary. There should be little doubt as to why he not only achieved the success that he did, but that he proved to have an impact far larger than most of the writers of his era.

1 comment:

jim marquis said...

Fantastic writer. I have so much respect for the work he did over the years.