Another day, another salute to a fallen legend. The sad news broke last night that Richard Matheson, the influential author of more cerebral works of print and screen than we could possibly list, has passed away at the age of 87. Naturally respects must be paid to one of the most significant genre authors of the 20th Century.
Born to immigrant parents in New Jersey in 1926, Matheson was raised in Brooklyn, New York, by a single mother. He escaped into fantasy from an early age, with his first story printed in a local newspaper at the tender age of 8, but WW2 ensured it be a while before Matheson’s potential for literary greatness was really tapped. Joining up to serve his country upon graduating high school in 1943, Matheson achieved a post-war journalism degree at the University of Michigan, graduating in 1949.
It didn’t take long for Richard Matheson’s flair for fantasy fiction to capture the imagination of the masses. His first professional story, Born of Man and Woman, was published in a 1950 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, marking the beginning of a particularly fruitful decade, personally as well as professionally. Matheson married his wife Ruth in 1952, a union that would yield four children, three of whom have followed their father’s career path (most notably, eldest son Chris co-created the Bill and Ted franchise, while Richard Christian Matheson has inked countless stories and TV screenplays, including episodes of Masters of Horror, Nightmares and Dreamscapes, The A-Team and Tales from the Crypt).
It was in 1954, however, that Richard Matheson Snr’s name became synonymous with genre legend. In addition to his first collected edition of short stories (also named Born of Man and Woman), ’54 saw the release of that little vampire novel that could, I am Legend. Inspired by viewing the Tod Browning Dracula, the author reasonably pontificated if one vampire was scary, a planet overrun with the little scamps would be outright terrifying. Science fiction and horror history was made, and a star was born. If you’ve never read I am Legend, don’t settle for any of the movie adaptations – each of them have their strengths and weaknesses, but none capture the essence of alienation and madness that is at the core of the novel.
I am Legend would be just the start of Matheson’s ability to spin gold for page and screen – his written works never skimped on the hard science, but always managed to remain more approachable that the likes of John Campbell. His next novel, The Shrinking Man, of course received an Incredible movie adaptation (with a Matheson script – a condition he insisted on when selling the rights to the text), while he also inked Ride the Nightmare in 1959 (which became Cold Sweat in 1970), and the ghost story A Stir of Echoes in 1958 (the source of the underrated Kevin Bacon vehicle that rode the coat-tails of The Sixth Sense in 1999).
The 1950s also marked Matheson’s big break in TV. Starting as a jobbing scribe on the Western shows that dominated the airwaves at the time such as Buckskin and the Steve McQueen-starring Wanted: Dead or Alive, Matheson created a new cult via 14 episodes of the original Twilight Zone. This run featured some of the most celebrated stories of them all – including the infamous Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, the real-life rock ’em sock ‘em robots action of Steel (recently converted to feature length for the silver screen as Real Steel), the much-feted The Invaders, and conversions of his own stories such as Third from the Sun. Perhaps most interestingly, he also flexed his comedy muscles with the underrated Once Upon a Time, a Buster Keaton-starring love letter to silent slapstick.
Matheson largely concentrated on TV throughout the 1960s. While he continued to pump out novels, most notably calling upon his wartime experiences for The Beardless Warriors (filmed in 1966), he also made waves with the Star Trek episode The Enemy Within, two instalments of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (including another adaptation of Ride the Nightmare), and a return to the Western genre with half a dozen episodes of Lawman. Matheson also enjoyed a number of cinematic credits throughout this era, most prominently with the Hammer adaptation of The Devil Rides Out and frequent collaborations with Roger Corman (usually adapting the work of forerunner Edgar Allen Poe).
The 1970s was another hugely prolific, and successful, era for Matheson on both page and screen. The former saw the release of the novels What Dreams May Come (the source of a Robin Williams blockbuster in 1998), the romantic time travel drama Bid Time Return (which would become the Christopher Reeve-starring Somewhere in Time in 1980) and Hell House (aka The Legend of Hell House, an all-star shocker from 1971). Additionally, Matheson’s short stories from the decade included Duel, which we believe made it to the screen at the hands of some bearded no-mark that never amounted to anything, and Button, Button, the basis of an 80s Twilight Zone revival episode, and the Richard Kelly flick The Box. Though we try not to talk about that.
Throughout all this, Matheson was once again scribing up a storm on the small screen. He wrote and produced the entire first season of Ghost Story, the anthology series later renamed Circle of Fear; scripted all three episodes of The Martian Chronicles mini-series (sadly not to the satisfaction of peer Ray Bradbury, who called the show boring); reunited with Rod Serling for an episode of Night Gallery (entitled The Funeral, based on his story Big Surprise); inked the highly-regarded Jack Palance-starring TV movie Dracula; and perhaps most importantly, adapted Jeffrey Rice’s vampire novel The Night Stalker into a feature-length teleplay. Considering that the success of this TV movie inspired a spin-off series (imaginatively titled Kolchak: The Night Stalker) that Chris Carter has cheerfully admitted directly influenced The X-Files, it’s just another thing that we can thank Richard Matheson for.
Understandably, Matheson began to wind down by the 1980s, with his releases during the decade that taste forgot amounting to one novel (published under the pseudonym of Logan Swanson), a handful of short stories, a thoroughly miserable Hollywood experience working on Jaws 3D, a spruce-up of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet for the Twilight Zone movie and an episode of Amazing Stories.
1990 saw the release of the universally panned comedy movie Loose Cannons, Matheson’s final fling on the big and small screens, but he continued writing right up to his death. Perhaps the most intriguing of these publication was 1993’s non-fiction offering The Path: Metaphysics for the 90s, but last year saw the publication of the closest thing we’ll ever have to an authorised biography; Generations, an autobiographical tale about Matheson’s difficult relationship with his absent father.
While the world is undoubtedly a lesser place without Richard Matheson in it, with over 80 film and TV credits, nearly 30 novels and more short stories than the DragonDark abacus can count to his name he leaves a powerful legacy. Rest in peace, Richard Matheson. You are, and shall always be, legend.