Richard Matheson died just over a year ago at the age of 87. I’m always playing catch-up when it comes to news worthy events – late to the party as it were. That’s not a good analogy. Matheson’s death was obviously not a cause for celebration; his fictional works, however, are a good enough reason to throw a party and celebrate.
The Horror and Science Fiction genres are two of my favourite ways to escape the drag of everyday life. Let me qualify what I mean by Horror (capital H.) I’m not talking mindless violence, or the blood and guts fury of some of the gratuitous media of today. It’s more about intelligent, thought provoking stories; often dealing with the supernatural, and where the Horror is almost incidental. Richard Matheson is one of a select few who helped re-shape these genres, whilst remaining just outside the popular writers’ hall of fame. This, in part, explains the lack of media ‘fanfare’ when he died, and my late arrival to the wake. His is not an isolated case of course. There are many talented people in their fields, who are not fully appreciated during their lifetime. It has often taken other, more well known writers to bring Richard Matheson’s name to the attention of the wider public. He was, in a sense, a writer’s writer.
Matheson was paradoxically uneasy about the label ‘Horror writer’, stating in one interview that ‘I never liked Horror in the first place.’ Like Stephen King, Matheson considered himself a writer who just happened upon Horror/SF as a means of exploring the universal human condition. The scary writing was something he did as a young man, when he could laugh at such things before age, and a growing family, brought responsibility and a growing anxiety about what Horror stories could do to the mind. In his later years he instead began to focus on stories that dealt with human spirituality and the power of enduring love – about as close to the heart of the human condition as you can get.
Trekkers, and those like myself whose faith lapsed over the years, are enjoying the current umpteenth Star Trek re-boot. Richard Matheson was there in the beginning, writing one of the best episodes of the original Star Trek series – The Enemy Within. During the ’50s and ’60s he wrote scripts for The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Lawman. His talents weren’t confined to the emerging medium of television during this time; he also wrote novels, screenplays and short stories. One of his short stories, Duel, was transformed into a highly successful feature film in 1971. It marked the cinematic debut of the then young director Stephen Spielberg. Spielberg had been working in television, desperate to make the jump to directing feature films, and he credits this Matheson short story with helping him make that leap.
There have been several film adaptations of Matheson’s books – The Incredible Shrinking Man, What Dreams May Come, Stir of Echoes and, of course, I am Legend; but none come close I think to Duel. If you haven’t seen Duel then it’s worth taking a look at this compelling, drawn-out example of road rage. A mysterious truck driver plays a deadly game of cat and mouse with a lone driver on the open roads, and we never know why. Matheson himself was ‘tailgated’ by a truck for miles, shortly after the Kennedy assassination, and this unnerving experience led to this story.
Duel was originally made for TV and then, due to its unexpected success, given a cinema release. This film is all the more powerful for its lack of special effects (if that term can be used with regard to cinema in the ’70s) and the small size of its less than stellar cast. Spielberg’s film is simple and straightforward. The horror of the situation the driver finds himself in unfolds gradually, and we feel his mounting paranoia as Spielberg juxtaposes everyday life against the threatening behaviour of the largely invisible driver of the truck. For Spielberg Duel was, in a way, a precursor to Jaws and Jurassic Park. The large, sinister truck tracking down a helpless man became a large, sinister shark and, later, an even bigger and more terrifying T Rex.
If it isn’t enough that Matheson helped launch the career of one of the most well known and gifted directors of his generation, then consider his influence on one of the best and most prolific authors of his time – Stephen King. In King’s own words:
‘When people talk about genre, I guess they mention my name first, but without Richard Matheson, I wouldn’t be around. He is as much my father as Bessie Smith was Elvis Presley’s mother.’
For King, Matheson ‘came like a bolt of pure ozone lightning’, regenerating the Horror/SF genres, and became ‘the author who influenced me the most as a writer.’
For Richard Matheson, Horror moved into your street and took up residence in the house next door. Stephen King later took this idea and ran with it. Matheson’s books centre around ordinary people, living ordinary lives until the worst possible thing happens, which brings me to I am Legend, Matheson’s signature work.
Whilst watching Dracula (1931 version), Matheson’s mind had wandered and he states, in an American Archive of Television interview, that the thought came to him, ‘If one vampire is scary, what if the whole world is full of vampires.‘ This ‘what if’ thought later became I am Legend.
I am Legend was published in 1954. Its hell is right here on earth scenario made possible Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, the comedic Shawn of the Dead and The World’s End and, more recently, World War Z, and the just released Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Matheson almost single handedly invented the narrative of the lone survivor/survivors living in a post-apocalyptic world. He did this by recycling the vampire stories from long ago and adding the then modern day science of 1954.
The vampires in I am Legend are the victims of a worldwide plague that changes their physiology. They are not supernatural beings. There is a scientific, medical cause for their vampirism, and the killer idea was this – what if one man happened to be immune? Robert Neville, the sole survivor, sets out to discover how he can fight back, using educated guess work and what little hope and faith he has left. Richard Matheson details the horror and utter isolation of that one man, as he tries to endure life without the loved ones he’s lost to a living death. This is not horror for horror’s sake. We are told that Neville carves out wooden stakes, and that he leaves the house carrying a large number, returning empty handed; but we are spared any graphic descriptions of stakes through the heart. Neville’s work to kill the vampires is largely implied. What lifts this book above what used to be called pulp fiction (and Matheson came at the tail end of the pulp fiction movement, perhaps explaining the lack of recognition accorded him by the literati), is its exploration of human fears, of the mechanisms upon which societies are run, of revolution and a new order.
Part 1: January 1976
On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.
Apart from the shock realisation that Matheson’s future of 1976 is already the distant past for us, you can’t read those lines without wanting to know more can you?
In a Christ-like death at the end of the novel, Neville becomes a legend to a new, evolving society and I’ll end this belated tribute to Richard Matheson by using an obvious comparison. To the world of Science Fiction, Horror and Thriller writing, Richard Matheson is Legend.