Richard Matheson, 1926 - 2013
By James Aquilone
Richard Matheson was never a household name. He was never a brand like Stephen King; a national treasure like Ray Bradbury; a cult figure like H.P. Lovecraft; a provocateur like Harlan Ellison. No, for Richard Matheson, his work was bigger than his name. His work was bigger than anyone's name, for that matter. Author Tim Waggoner puts it best: "Someone…wondered why, given all Matheson's contributions to literature, film, and television, he wasn't a household name. I figure it's because he's like oxygen—so essential, so prevalent, so much a part of our lives in so many ways, that we often aren't aware of his incredible influence."
Novels, short stories, movies, TV shows…Matheson spread the seeds of his genius across the landscape of the fantastic like some otherworldly Johnny Appleseed.
A quick overview of the Richard Matheson oeuvre:
Novels: I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, Hell House, What Dreams May Come, Bid Time Return, A Stir of Echoes—all adapted for the silver screen; some more than once.
Short Stories: "Of Man and Woman," "Duel" (adapted for Steven Spielberg's directorial debut), "Button, Button" (adapted for an episode of The Twilight Zone and the movie The Box), "Prey" (part of the TV movie Trilogy of Terror), "Steel" (filmed as Real Steel).
Movies: He adapted the works of Edgar Allan Poe for Roger Corman—including House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Raven—as well as his own work—including Duel, The Legend of Hell House, and The Incredible Shrinking Man.
TV: He wrote two of the most famous episodes in sci-fi television—The Twilight Zone's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" and Star Trek's "The Enemy Within." (Interestingly, both featured William Shatner freaking out.) TV movies included The Martian Chronicles, The Night Stalker, and Trilogy of Terror.
Matheson humanized speculative fiction while modernizing it. He gave the supernatural a scientific foundation. He plucked horror out of the gothic castles of Europe and set it loose in suburban America. As author Michael Swanick points out, "Matheson was an originary writer—a source of ideas rather than a writer who takes other writers' ideas and casts them in better prose."
Where would the fantasy, horror, and science fiction genres be without Richard Matheson? In memorializing the man, Stephen King, who probably owes the most to Matheson, said, "Without his I Am Legend, there would have been no Night of the Living Dead; without Night of the Living Dead, there would have been no Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, or World War Z."
But there were more ideas, more seeds sown.
Without Duel, there would have been no Jaws. Without "Little Girl Lost," his 1953 short story later adapted for The Twilight Zone, there would have been no Poltergeist. Without Kolchak: The Night Stalker, there would have been no The X-Files. Without Richard Matheson, there would have been no Stephen King.
Matheson has been fueling the imaginations of readers and writers for more than sixty years. Though he passed away on June 23rd, his stories and ideas will continue to breathe new life into speculative fiction. Because even after the author dies and his name is long forgotten, it's the work—if it is worthy—that endures.