Icon Of The Month: Richard Matheson

That’s right, this month the amazing Richard Matheson, is my icon of the month.

Richard Burton Matheson was born February 20, 1926 in Allendale, New Jersey, the third child of working-class Norwegian immigrants Bertolf and Fanny Matheson. They divorced when he was 8, and he was raised in Brooklyn, New York by his mother. His early writing influences were the film Dracula, novels by Kenneth Roberts, and a poem which he read in the newspaper Brooklyn Eagle, where he published his first short story at age 8. He graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School and served with the Army in Europe during World War II; this formed the basis for his 1960 novel “The Beardless Warriors”. Matheson served as an infantryman, seeing action in Germany during the Second World War, and after enrolled at the Missouri School of Journalism, from which he graduated in 1949 with a degree in journalism. He then moved to California.

His first-written novel, “Hunger and Thirst”, was ignored by publishers for several decades before eventually being published in 2010, but his short story “Born of Man and Woman” was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Summer 1950, the new quarterly’s third issue and attracted attention. It is the tale of a monstrous child chained by its parents in the cellar, cast as the creature’s diary in poignantly non-idiomatic English. Later that year he placed stories in the first and third numbers of Galaxy Science Fiction, a new monthly. His first anthology of work was published in 1954. Between 1950 and 1971, he produced dozens of stories, frequently blending elements of the science fiction, horror, and fantasy genres. He sometimes wrote under the pen name, ‘Logan Swanson’.

He was a member of the Southern California Sorcerers in the 1950s and 1960s, which included Charles Beaumont, Ray Bradbury, George Clayton Johnson, William F. Nolan, Jerry Sohl, and others. Several of his stories, including “Third from the Sun” (1950), “Deadline” (1959), and “Button, Button” (1970) are simple sketches with twist endings; others, like “Trespass” (1953), “Being” (1954), and “Mute” (1962) explore their characters’ dilemmas over 20 or 30 pages. Some tales, such as “The Doll that Does Everything” (1954) and “The Funeral” (1955) incorporate satirical humour at the expense of genre clichés, and are written in an overblown prose very different from Matheson’s usual pared-down style.

Others, like “The Test” (1954) and “Steel” (1956), portray the moral and physical struggles of ordinary people, rather than the then nearly ubiquitous scientists and superheroes, in situations which are at once futuristic and everyday. Still others, such as “Mad House” (1953), “The Curious Child” (1954), and perhaps most of all, “Duel” (1971), are tales of paranoia, in which the everyday environment of the present day becomes inexplicably alien or threatening. “Duel” was adapted into the 1971 TV movie of the same name.

Matheson’s first novel to be published, “Someone Is Bleeding”, appeared from Lion Books in 1953. In 1960, Matheson published “The Beardless Warriors”, a non-fantastic, autobiographical novel about teenage American soldiers in World War II. It was filmed in 1967 as “The Young Warriors” though most of Matheson’s plot was jettisoned. During the 1950s he published a handful of Western stories (later collected in By the Gun); and during the 1990s he published Western novels such as “Journal of the Gun Years”, “The Gunfight”, “The Memoirs of Wild Bill Hickok”, and “Shadow on the Sun”.

His other early novels include “The Shrinking Man” (1956, filmed in 1957 as “The Incredible Shrinking Man”, again from Matheson’s own screenplay) and a science fiction vampire novel, “I Am Legend” (1954) (filmed as “The Last Man on Earth” in 1964, “The Omega Man” in 1971 and “I Am Legend” in 2007). Matheson wrote screenplays for several television programs including the Westerns “Cheyenne”, “Have Gun – Will Travel”, and “Lawman”.

He is most closely associated with the American TV series “The Twilight Zone”, for which he wrote more than a dozen episodes, including “Steel” (1963), “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (1963), “Little Girl Lost” (1962), and “Death Ship” (1963). For all of his Twilight Zone scripts, Matheson wrote the introductory and closing statements spoken by creator Rod Serling. He adapted five works of Edgar Allan Poe for Roger Corman’s Poe series, including “House of Usher” (1960), “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1961), and “The Raven” (1963).

He wrote the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within” (1966). For Hammer Film Productions he wrote the screenplay for “Fanatic” (1965; US title: “Die! Die! My Darling!”) based on the novel “Nightmare” by Anne Blaisdell, starring Tallulah Bankhead and Stefanie Powers; he also adapted for Hammer Dennis Wheatley’s “The Devil Rides Out” (1968).

In 1973, Matheson earned an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his teleplay for “The Night Stalker”, one of two TV movies written by Matheson and directed by Dan Curtis (the other was “The Night Strangler”, which preceded the TV series “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”). Matheson worked extensively with Curtis; the 1977 television movie “Dead of Night” features three stories written for the screen by Matheson — “Second Chance” (based on the story by Jack Finney); “No Such Thing as a Vampire” (based on Matheson’s story of the same name); and “Bobby”, an original script written for this omnibus movie by Matheson. “Bobby” was later refilmed with different actors as the second segment of Trilogy of Terror II.

Three of his short stories were filmed together as “Trilogy of Terror” (1975), including “Prey” (initially published in the April 1969 issue of Playboy magazine) with its famous Zuni warrior fetish doll. The Zuni fetish doll reappeared in the final segment of the belated sequel to the first movie, “Trilogy of Terror II”.

Other Matheson novels turned into notable films in the seventies include “Bid Time Return” (as Somewhere in Time), and “Hell House” (as “The Legend of Hell House”), both adapted and scripted by Matheson himself. In the 1980s Matheson published the novel “Earthbound”, wrote several screenplays for the TV series “Amazing Stories”, and continued to publish short fiction. Matheson published four western novels in this decade, plus the suspense novel “Seven Steps to Midnight” (1993) and the blackly comic locked-room mystery novel, “Now You See It …”, aptly dedicated to Robert Bloch (1995).

He also wrote several movies  —the offbeat comedy “Loose Cannons”, the biopic “The Dreamer of Oz” (about L. Frank Baum), a segment of “Rod Serling’s Lost Classics”, and segments of “Trilogy of Terror II”. Short stories continued to flow from his pen, and he saw the adaptations by other hands of two more of his novels for the big screen  “—What Dreams May Come” and “A Stir of Echoes” (as “Stir of Echoes”). In 1999, Matheson published a non-fiction work “The Path”, inspired by his interest in psychic phenomena.

Many previously unpublished novels by Matheson appeared late in his career, as did various collections of his work and previously unpublished screenplays. He also wrote new works, such as the suspense novel “Hunted Past Reason” (2002). and the children’s illustrated fantasy “Abu and the Seven Marvels”. Matheson cited specific inspirations for many of his works. “Duel” was derived from an incident in which he and a friend, Jerry Sohl, were dangerously tailgated by a large truck on the same day as the assassination of John F. Kennedy. According to film critic Roger Ebert, Matheson’s scientific approach to the supernatural in “I Am Legend” and other novels from the 1950s and early 1960s “anticipated pseudorealistic fantasy novels like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist.”

In 1952, Matheson married Ruth Ann Woodson, whom he met in California. They had four children. Bettina Mayberry, Richard Christian Matheson, Chris Matheson and Ali Matheson. Richard Christian, Chris and Ali became writers of fiction and screenplays. Matheson died on June 23, 2013 at his home in Los Angeles, California, aged 87. He was cremated.

Matheson received the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 1984 and the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Horror Writers Association in 1991. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame inducted him in 2010. At the annual World Fantasy Conventions he won two judged, annual literary awards for particular works: World Fantasy Awards for “Bid Time Return” as the best novel of 1975 and “Richard Matheson: Collected Stories” as the best collection of 1989.

Matheson died just days before he was due to receive the Visionary award at the 39th Saturn Awards ceremony. As a tribute, the ceremony was dedicated to him and the award was presented posthumously. Academy President Robert Holguin said “Richard’s accomplishments will live on forever in the imaginations of everyone who read or saw his inspired and inimitable work.” The tribute anthology “He is Legend” was published by Gauntlet Press in 2009.

Stephen King has listed Matheson as a creative influence and his novel “Cell” is dedicated to Matheson, along with filmmaker George A. Romero. Romero frequently acknowledged Matheson as an inspiration and listed the shambling vampire creatures that appear in “The Last Man on Earth”, the first film version of “I Am Legend”, as the inspiration for the zombie ‘ghouls’ he envisioned in “Night of the Living Dead”. Anne Rice stated that when she was a child, Matheson’s short story “A Dress of White Silk” was an early influence on her interest in vampires and fantasy fiction.

After his death, several figures offered tributes to his life and work. Director Steven Spielberg said:

“Richard Matheson’s ironic and iconic imagination created seminal science-fiction stories and gave me my first break when he wrote the short story and screenplay for Duel. His Twilight Zones were among my favorites, and he recently worked with us on Real Steel. For me, he is in the same category as Bradbury and Asimov.”
On Twitter, director Edgar Wright wrote:
 “If it’s true that the great Richard Matheson has passed away, 140 characters can’t begin to cover what he has given the sci fi & horror genre.” 
Director Richard Kelly added:
 “I loved Richard Matheson’s writing and it was a huge honor getting to adapt his story ‘Button, Button’ into a film. RIP.”
“I wrote about real people and real circumstances and real neighborhoods. There was no crypt or castles or H.P. Lovecraft-type environments. They were just about normal people who had something bizarre happening to them in the neighborhood. I could never write about strange kingdoms. I could never do Harry Potter or anything like that. Even when I did science-fiction I didn’t write about foreign planets and distant futures. I certainly never did fantasies about trolls living under bridges. I had to write about realistic circumstances. That’s the way my brain works. And I think that gave me a sort of place in the field.” – Richard Matheson

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