The late Richard Matheson isn’t a household word like many of the writers and filmmakers he inspired. Science fiction fans always perk up at his name, but run-of-the-mill folks don’t recognize him like they do, say, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, Rod Serling or George A. Romero. And yet all four of those gentlemen owe a considerable debt to him. His legacy extends beyond the dozens of novels, short stories and screenplays he penned to reach into the very fundaments of genre storytelling. This was the man without whom Serling might not have unlocked that door with the key of imagination. The man who inspired Romero to take a stab at the whole zombie thing. The man whose battle between hapless driver and crazy trucker launched the career of Spielberg. The man who King once cited as the biggest influence of his career. The man who showed us what life was like if the vampires won, how scary a house cat can be when you’re six inches tall, what dying of a broken heart truly looks like and – beyond the shadow of all possible doubt – that there was some thing on the wing of that goddamn plane.
Born in New Jersey and raised in New York City, Matheson’s writing first appeared in local newspapers at the tender age of 8. He came into his own in the 1950s, starting with the very disturbing short story “Born of Man and Woman.” The New York Times described him as “an established producer of the violently disturbing,” and they didn’t intend it as a criticism. Matheson mastered the art of the literary rabbit punch, packing profound terror into as small a space as possible. His tales reveled in O Henry twists, but unlike less skilled practitioners, they weren’t the sole purpose of the exercise. His shocks drew attention to the rest of the story, instead of just existing to take a curtain call, and they usually had deeper implications than a simple twist. The tactic appeared regularly in his copious short stories and on into his novels, starting with I Am Legend in 1954.
As great as his written work was, it proved particularly suitable for adaptation. The Incredible Shrinking Man, based on his novel, became a classic of 1950s science fiction, followed by the likes of The Young Warriors, What Dreams May Come, Duel and I Am Legend (which has to date received three movie versions all on its own). Matheson himself wasn’t a passive participant in this process. He teamed up with Roger Corman to pen a series of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, while regularly contributing television scripts to the likes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Have Gun Will Travel and Star Trek. (The episode where Kirk splits into good and evil halves? That was his.)
It was The Twilight Zone that gave him his most prominent forum, however. His brief, powerful short stories served as the perfect fodder for 22-minute exercises in the macabre, and Serling shared both his love of irony and his sense of social justice. He wrote 16 episodes all told, five of which were directly based on stories of his. At their worst, they became a little drippy, but when they hit the way they could, they ranked among the series’ best (and by extension some of the best television ever). His Steel still packs an incredible punch, utilizing Lee Marvin’s tough-guy desperation to both lionize and despair at the human condition. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is more direct – scary as hell and never demanding anything else – but it also paints a convincing picture of a man losing his mind. If you’re right and everyone else thinks you’re crazy, does the reality truly matter? That unsettling implication hovers beneath the ape-liked gremlin on the wing, feeding Shatner’s fear in ways that have nothing to do with the plane crashing. It never would have happened without Matheson conjuring it from cloth.
And as we said, his work served as a springboard for numerous brilliant directors. Spielberg has improved a lot in the 40 years since his feature debut Duel, but he’s rarely been as lean and efficient as he was with Matheson’s terrifying novella. Romero actively admits coming up with Night of the Living Dead as a way of emulating I Am Legend, and Matheson’s updated scripts for the 1983 Twilight Zone movie proved a boon for both Joe Dante and George Miller.
In his own way, his work seemed to anticipate the multi-media era, moving fluidly between one medium and the next until it hardly mattered where his ideas began. His essence remained in all of them: full of moral admonitions, heart-pounding terror and equal parts hope and despair. He pulled the concepts straight from his imagination, but he always included the human element… the part that suggests what we might do if we found ourselves in such circumstances. Few writers could be as terrifying (I once spent a week alone in an isolated cabin reading a collection of his stories; BIG mistake), and his fears always sprang from more than the pitch-perfect set up for his twist endings.
And now, his voice is gone. He kept writing to the end, with his novel Generations published just last year. The man was never stingy with his imagination, one that enthralled us, moved us and reminded us why genre writing can transcend our wildest expectations. You will be missed Mr. Matheson. Thanks for all the nightmares… at 20,000 feet or anywhere else.