R.I.P. Richard Matheson

R.I.P. Richard Matheson

A little girl disappears under her bed. A man is trapped in a world of the ravenous undead. A driver is hunted by a murderous 18-wheeler. A hat no longer fits. There's something on the wing of the plane. The works of Richard Matheson—the author who died yesterday at the age of 87—are the nightmares and ghost stories of generations, the influence that launched dozens of careers, and the shaping impulse behind some of the most basic building blocks of modern genre fiction.

He wrote about haunted houses, shrinking men, optimistic aliens, time travel, the afterlife, and—for all its two-fisted clunkiness—his prose had a feverish intensity that made its hooks hard to ignore. And through it all, a model persisted: the belief that logic and perseverance could be used to beat back the forces of darkness. Matheson's protagonists didn't always win, but when they did, it was through the force of their will, a refusal to accept the unacceptable. A mixture of Lovecraftian dread and Bradbury's kitchen-sink miracles, Matheson's stories took on the looming futurism of the '50s and '60s and preached the power of clear thinking. 

Born February 20, 1926 in New Jersey to Norwegian immigrants, Matheson followed the path of his generation by serving in the infantry during World War II, then it was back to the University of Missouri for a degree in journalism. His first published short story, "Born Of Man And Woman," came in 1950 in The Magazine Of Science Fiction And Fantasy. The tale of a freakish child beaten and trapped by his parents established Matheson's career-long interest in seeing monsters from multiple angles (a theme that would define the twist ending of his most famous work, I Am Legend). Matheson's first novel, Someone Is Bleeding, arrived in 1953. Matheson wrote for the rest of his adult life, well into the ’00s, publishing more than 20 novels and numerous short stories, teleplays, and screenplays.

Matheson's scripts for The Twilight Zone helped to create some of that series' most memorable moments. Matheson wrote "A World Of His Own," a cheeky look at the power of the writer to influence his surroundings; "The Invaders," about a frontier woman menaced by a group of miniature alien spacemen; "Little Girl Lost," about a friendly physicist trying to rescue a child from an otherworldly fate; and a dozen more besides. Perhaps his most indelible teleplay was "Nightmare At 20,000 Feet," starring William Shatner—whom Matheson would later send to new heights of over-acting with his sole Star Trek script, "The Enemy Within”—with Shatner facing off against a malevolent gremlin aboard a cross-country flight. The script, adapted from Matheson's own short story, serves as a sort of distillation of his life’s work by pitting a flawed but ordinary hero against the inexplicable, then forcing him to overcome his demons to save the day.

There's a fundamental practicality to Matheson's fiction, an unshakable conviction that man's best weapon against evil is his mind. In I Am Legend (1954, adapted multiple times to the screen, most recently in the 2007 Will Smith vehicle of the same name), the hero struggles against living under siege and in isolation by working to study the vampires assaulting him, breaking their condition down into biological terms. In The Shrinking Man (1956, adapted by Matheson into the 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking Man, and the subject of a forthcoming remake), a guy decreases in size and has to use ingenuity and courage to fight a spider.

In Hell House (1971, adapted by Matheson into 1973’s The Legend Of Hell House with Roddy McDowall), a group of paranormal investigators enter "the Mount Everest of haunted houses" in search of proof of life after death. A pulpy, violent take on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting Of Hill House, the book features gore, death, and lurid horrors, but the climax has the heroes turning on the house's nefarious infesting spirit, using their basic knowledge of human psychology to send the evil howling back into the darkness. There's a nuts-and-bolts common sense to this approach that captures the can-do attitude of the day—an optimism for the powers of scientific progress, tempered with the understanding that even science has its limits.

That reverence for man's reach makes itself known in the author's less violent fiction as well. In Bid Time Return (published in 1975, and later adapted by Matheson into the 1980 Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour romance, Somewhere In Time), a man falls in love with a woman in a 60-year-old photograph. Like all reasonable people would, he decides to self-hypnotize himself back into the past. In What Dreams May Come (adapted by Ronald Bass into the 1998 Robin Williams film), which Matheson wrote in 1978—in part to move away from the horror genre—a screenwriter dies in a car crash, discovers you make your own heaven, and then travels to hell to save his wife. Neither time nor death itself can serve as a barrier for the determined mind. 

Richard Matheson's immense body of work helped to shape the course of speculative fiction. I Am Legend helped inspire George Romero's Night Of The Living Dead, which in turn defined the zombie menace for decades to come. Duel, a 1971 made-for-TV movie directed by the then relatively unknown Stephen Spielberg, was another adaptation of a Matheson short story scripted by Matheson himself; the movie's success helped launch Spielberg's career. The Spielberg-produced Poltergeist and Reel Steel also owe Matheson a debt.

Matheson's teleplay for The Night Stalker (1971) led to a TV show, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which, in its single-season run, helped inspire Chris Carter to create The X-Files. (In homage, Fox Mulder sometimes turned to Senator Richard Matheson for guidance.) And it's hard to understate the importance Matheson's work had to Stephen King, one of the most popular writers of the latter half of the twentieth century. King has acknowledged Matheson as an influence on multiple occasions, and the core of both writers' work—the regular human being set against the mundane made extraordinary—is so embedded in readers' expectations, it's hard to imagine a time when it wasn't the standard.

Richard Matheson was one of the last representatives of a kind of writer that’s become increasingly rare: the journeyman scribbler whose inherent knack for plotting and premise allow him to make a living off pulp magazines and TV. There was a hunger for story at the height of Matheson's career, and he was able to feed it with writing that still sticks in the mind and scrapes at the nerves long after lesser efforts have faded away. He had a hand in some of the best genre television of the ’60s and ’70s, his novels and short stories have been adapted time and again, and any study of horror or science fiction would be incomplete without his name. Matheson is survived by his wife, their four children, and anyone whoever looked out into the night and wondered. 

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