You know his work, even if you don’t know his name. And if you don’t know it, do yourself a favor and pick up a book or two by Richard Matheson. I can assure you that you are in for a treat, one that might change the way you read literature. But for those who enjoy popular fiction, those who find solace in the make-believe provinces of horror, science fiction, fantasy, westerns, mystery and everything in between, then Richard Matheson isn’t just another name, it’s one that is synonymous with reverence and amazement, almost more of a myth than a real person. Richard Matheson set the standard for the modern horror story and almost every major writer of dark fantasy that came after him cites him as an influence. He passed away last Sunday, June 23. He was 87.
I spent the last week re-reading my favorite Matheson short stories and watching his Twilight Zone episodes as well as scripts he penned for other programs like Thriller and Night Gallery. I have to admit that I have been away from Matheson’s fiction for a while. But coming back to his work I find that it isn’t the least bit stale. In fact I think I take more away from it now than when I first fell in love it over a decade ago. The first time I heard the name Richard Matheson was when Jordan put a tattered paperback copy of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet in my hands and told me that I would soon have a new favorite writer. I was 18 at the time (11 years ago for anyone keeping score) so of course I put off reading it because I already had a giant stack of things to read not to mention the piles of homework I wasn’t doing. So after having it in my possession for a few weeks I picked it up and read the title story. I was already familiar with both the television and the movie versions so I knew the story fairly well. But now I saw it in another light. Matheson’s prose was fast and unforgiving and while I liked both filmed versions of the story, I found that neither one of them quite told the story the way Matheson could on paper. So I kept reading. I remember very vividly that the second story I read in this collection was a number called “Legion of Plotters.” I was blown away. The thing I found so disturbing about the main character, who ends the story by going on a killing spree, is how much I empathized with him. He begins the story a reclusive but seemingly harmless individual who becomes frustrated by the irritating habits of those around him. But somewhere in the middle of the story he betrays the reader and we realize that this person has deeply-rooted psychological problems. What makes this story so great is that the things that irritate this guy are the same things that most people find unbearable about social interaction. Matheson knew the human condition well and he used it to his full advantage. A key characteristic of his fiction is that stories which feature neurotic characters like this one are usually told solely from their point of view. So the audience has no choice but to find sympathy with them.
So I remained a fan of the man’s work after that. I read every story or novel I could get my hands on (although I still haven’t read them all). And as a fan of horror and fantasy I see his influence everywhere. Matheson wasn’t the first writer to “modernize" the horror genre but he was the first one to make it a defining characteristic of his fiction. You aren’t likely to see many morose, decaying castles or ancient family tombs in his fiction. Terror doesn’t exist in a specific time or setting. It exists in whatever we fear. Matheson realized this and he set his stories in airplanes, buses, college campuses, coffee shops, and even in normal, contemporary suburban homes. And he let the characters create their own horror. He simply dropped a touch of strange into their lives. He would take something they valued away from them. Or sometimes he would add an unwanted element. He often left it ambiguous, in the case of stories like “Mad House” or “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” as to whether the element of terror in his stories was real or simply imagined by a paranoid protagonist.
Although he is thought of as a mentor to so many currently working in the fantasy genre and was awarded more accolades than I could possibly mention here, for whatever reason Matheson never became a brand name like Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick or Stephen King. This could be simply due to the fact that the man was not known for being outspoken. He hardly ever gave speeches or attended conventions and only gave a handful of interviews throughout his career. But he didn’t have to. His work is such a representation of his personality that it speaks for itself. Another reason could be because, unlike the three names I just mentioned, Hollywood rarely got Matheson right. The Twilight Zone was one of the few television programs that really represented his fiction correctly. Of the numerous films adapted from his work, even ones written by the man himself, only a handful really stand the test of time. His masterpiece, I Am Legend, which is considered by many to be one of the best horror novels of all time, has been made into three different films and none of them are particularly remarkable. I am not sure why his work hasn’t been represented well on the screen (there are exceptions of course, if you are looking for great Matheson movies Steven Spielberg’s Duel and David Koepp’s Stir of Echoes are two of my favorites) but I hope in the future this will change. I hope that new generations of fans will discover his work for years to come and one way to do that is to adapt it into as many mediums as possible. Matheson’s work doesn’t age. It’s as original now as it was sixty years ago.
For the past few days I have been wrestling over what I would write here. What do you say about someone who you didn't actually know but who, nevertheless, had an immeasurable impact on your life? A person whose work you connect with on such a personal level. When I think about Richard Matheson my mind takes me back to images of myself ten years ago, haunting local bookstores and my college library looking for anything with his name on it, spending hours upon hours of my college career reading his stories instead of studying. And I think back to when I first discovered his work and how it introduced me to the types of literature that I had been looking for, literature I would spend every possible moment of the next decade reading. After Matheson I discovered Charles Beaumont and after that Bradbury and then Bloch, Ellison, Nolan, Collier, Brown, Kuttner and eventually an entire community of writers with an endless supply of stories in every genre imaginable. It almost seemed too good to be true. It felt as if I were scaling a mountain that I never wanted to reach the peak of. And I remember introducing friends to the works of these writers and how secretly excited I got when they told me how much they loved it. And I recall the endless nights we spent dissecting the history of popular fiction, and how I never wanted it to end. I think of these times now and the memories they bring back are warm ones, ones I will cherish for a long time.
And it all started with Richard Matheson.
His stories were the ones I always felt the strongest connection with. Matheson more than any other writer made me want to become a writer. His settings are so familiar and the characters, however neurotic, are so relatable and the language so simple yet effective that it made me want to write stories just like it. But of course I couldn’t. I don’t think anyone can. Many cite Matheson as an influence but his style cannot be duplicated. And although he leaves behind an enormous body of work for his fans to enjoy, I know that the world will never see another Richard Matheson, and this is something that I admit makes me tremendously sad. So Cheers, Mr. Matheson, and thanks for all the wonderful memories.
1926 - 2013