Richard Burton Matheson (1926 – 2013) would have been ninety this weekend, so let us just pause to remember the man who, along with H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, is probably the most significant and influential horror writer of the twentieth century.
Matheson was a prolific novelist, short story and script writer responsible for some of the most iconic horror and science fiction, film and television produced in America after the Second World War. His writing was essentially gothic, often in a contemporary setting with a notionally science fiction frame, and to liken his influence on the post-war genre, across media, to Poe’s on the nineteenth century form would not be an understatement. Many modern masters of horror, most notably Stephen King and George A. Romero, cite Matheson as both an influence and an inspiration. King has argued that Matheson represented ‘the birth of a new breed of American fantasists’ and ‘the break from the Lovecraftian fantasy that had held sway over serious American writers of horror for two decades or more’ (King: 1981, 348 – 349). When Tim Burton discusses the influence of Poe in his early work, he is, in fact, referring to Matheson’s screenplay adaptations for American International (Salisbury: 1995, 16 – 17).
Matheson’s writing was not restricted to the fantastic, but his major genre works include the apocalyptic gothic novel I Am Legend (1954), The Incredible Shrinking Man (novel and screenplay, 1956/7), and the screenplays of the best of Roger Corman’s ‘Poe Cycle’: The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Raven (1963). Matheson also wrote The Comedy of Terrors for Corman in 1963, and adapted Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out for Hammer in 1968. Other significant Matheson screenplays are Duel (1971), directed by Steven Spielberg, The Legend of Hell House (1973, from his novel), Dan Curtis’ Dracula (1972), the ‘Prey’ segment of Trilogy of Terror (1975, also directed by Curtis), Somewhere in Time (1980, from his novel Bid Time Return), a time traveller’s love story, and Jaws 3-D (1983), an under-rated monster movie in the 1950s tradition. The magic realist What Dreams May Come (1998), and the brooding blue collar ghost story Stir of Echoes (1999), are both based on novels by Matheson, while I Am Legend has been filmed as The Last Man on Earth (1964, starring Vincent Price, and written by Matheson under the pseudonym ‘Logan Swanson’), The Omega Man (1971), I Am Omega and I Am Legend (both 2007). Romero has also acknowledged that Night of the Living Dead (1968) was inspired by Matheson’s novel (Gagne: 1987, 24).
Matheson’s notable television work began with sixteen episodes of The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964), including the famous ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ (starring William Shatner as an airline passenger recovering from a nervous breakdown who might be seeing a gremlin on the wing), ‘The Invaders,’ ‘Steel’ (filmed as Real Steel in 2011), and ‘Little Girl Lost,’ which formed the unofficial basis of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982). Matheson also wrote the iconic Star Trek episode ‘The Enemy Within’ (1966), in which Captain Kirk is doubled, as well as the two feature length pilots that introduced Kolchak: The Nightstalker (1972/3), for which he won an Edgar Allan Poe Award.
Matheson was born in New Jersey and raised in Brooklyn, the son of Norwegian immigrants. He served in the infantry in the Second World War, and gained a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 1949. His first published story, ‘Born of Man and Woman,’ appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1950, a digest at the fag-end of pulp fiction (he also wrote for Weird Tales). This story is a first person account of a child locked in a cellar by his parents. The denouement is unsettling and ambivalent; the protagonist may or may not be some kind of mutant, possibly resembling a giant insect or spider (the reference to extra limbs and running on the walls suggests this), and there are intertextual nods towards the De Lacey episode of Shelley’s original Frankenstein, and Kafka’s Metamorphosis. As Philip Strick notes, this story establishes Matheson as ‘an articulate champion of the isolated loner in a hostile universe’ (Newman: 1996, 213).
This recurrent theme is taken to its extreme in I Am Legend, as a lone survivor battles hoards of zombie-like ‘vampires’ after a biological war. Alongside John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), Matheson’s novel is the blueprint for all subsequent post-apocalyptic narratives, especially the ‘zombie’ sub-genre. I Am Legend concludes with an existential gothic inversion that Hollywood, thus far, has chosen to avoid (Matheson’s film version was made in Italy), casting the protagonist instead as a messianic military scientist working on a cure for the plague, and completely excising the central meaning of the novel. The original Robert Neville, ‘the last of the old race,’ is a cynic with a cross tattooed on his chest who spends his days obsessively killing vampire-zombies and his nights drinking in his boarded up suburban home, trying not to think about the dead women taunting him to come outside (Matheson: 1954, 157). John Clute and John Brosnan have argued that ‘the dominant theme in Richard Matheson’s work has always been paranoia, whether imagined in gothic or science fiction terms,’ reading ‘obsessive images of persecution’ in I Am Legend (Nicholls: 1979, 388). In this sense, the best cinematic interpretation of the novel belongs to Romero and his impersonators.
Richard Matheson remained active until the end of his life, and the recent Hollywood revival of his story ‘Steel’ is indicative of his continuing influence on the global discourse of the fantastic. He received the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1990, and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010. He died at his home in Los Angeles on June 23, 2013, aged 87. Among numerous tributes from friends, colleagues and fans, Roger Corman offered perhaps the highest praise any writer can receive: ‘Richard Matheson was a close friend and the best screenwriter I ever worked with. I always shot his first draft’ (qtd. in Olsen: 2013); while Neil Gaiman said it all on Twitter: ‘[H]e was a giant, and YOU KNOW HIS STORIES, even if you think you don’t.’
This piece was first published in the Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of the Gothic, edited by W. Hughes, D. Punter & A. Smith (2012).
REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS
Brejla, Terry. (2011). The Devils of His Own Creation: The Life and Work of Richard Matheson. San Jose: Writers Club Press.
Gagne, Paul R. (1987). The Zombies that Ate Pittsburgh: The Films of George A. Romero. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company.
Gerani, Gary, Schulman, Paul H. (1987). Fantastic Television. London: Titan.
King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. (1981). London: Futura.
Matheson, Richard. (1954). Born of Man and Woman and Other Stories. New York: Chamberlain Press.
—. (1954). I Am Legend. New York: Gold Medal Press.
—. (1956). The Shrinking Man. New York: Gold Medal Press.
—. (1958). A Stir of Echoes. New York: J. B. Lippincott.
—. (1971). Hell House. New York: The Viking Press.
—. (2004). Richard Matheson’s Kolchak Scripts. Colorado Springs: Gauntlet Press.
Naha, Ed. (1982). The Films of Roger Corman. New York: Arco.
Newman, Kim, ed. (1996). The BFI Companion to Horror. London: Cassell Academic.
Nicholls, Peter, ed. (1979). The Science Fiction Encyclopedia. New York: Doubleday.
Olsen, Mark. (2013). ‘I Am Legend writer Richard Matheson’s legacy of smart sci-fi.’ Los Angeles Times, June 24.
Salisbury, Mark, ed. (1995). Burton on Burton. London: Faber and Faber.
Wiater, Stanley, Bradley, Matthew R, Stuve, Paul, eds. (2008). The Richard Matheson Companion. Colorado Springs: Gauntlet Press.
Wiater, Stanley. (2009). The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson. New York: Citadel.