He Is, and Always Will Be, Legend: Richard Matheson (1926-2013)

Don’t take this the wrong way, as it is said with the greatest respect and a longtime sense of readership and loyalty, but Richard Matheson is a gateway artist. You know the kind, a person of high skill and immeasurable influence who introduces people to a particular path that is easily ascribed to them, yet capable of complementing such onward motion. Like Ray Bradbury, or in recent times, Stephen King, Matheson introduced entire generations to the outer limits of the sci-fi and horror genres. A prolific writer, he penned several books, dozens of short stories, and even the occasional screenplay. But his biggest impact may be as a founding father to television’s neophyte attempts at the unusual and unexplained.

From Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone to his later work with Dan Curtis (The Night Stalker, Trilogy of Terror) and Steven Spielberg (Duel), he defined ’70s supernaturalism, arguing for tension and dread over the eventual turn towards blood and gore. Outside the boob tube, he was even more influential, his efforts leading to such memorable movies as The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Last Man on Earth (based on his classic book, I Am Legend, which was adapted again as The Omega Man, and again under its original title), The Legend of Hell House, Stir of Echoes, and Somewhere In Time. From King, to Anne Rice, to Chris Carter (The X-Files) to J.J. Abrams, few currently working in the field fail to recognize Matheson as a genuine mentor and influence.

And with his passing at age 87, the world has lost a powerful voice, one that began after World War II. Matheson was born 20 February 1926 in Allendale, New Jersey to Norwegian immigrant parents. After graduating from the Brooklyn Technical High School in 1943, he entered the service and spent time in the infantry. Upon release, he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri. He married his wife, Ruth Ann Woodson in 1952 after moving to California. He would later become linked with the state as part of a growing movement of writers, including Charles Beaumont (who Matheson collaborated with), William F. Nolan (Logan’s Run), and, of course, Bradbury.

As with many writers of the time, Matheson made his way through the publication of short stories in such beloved periodicals as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction. His first novel, Someone Is Bleeding, came out in 1953, followed quickly by Legend, Shrinking Man, and more. It was the film version of the latter that many remember as their introduction to Matheson. A favorite among Late, Late Movie programmers and Saturday/Sunday children’s television types, the story of a normal human being slowly shrinking – and the terrors that befell him – became a cult classic, with many wondering who conceived of the inspired story (Matheson would write the screenplay for the film as well).

Over the course of the ’50s and early ’60s, he worked non-stop. He fell in with Roger Corman’s crew over at American International Pictures and penned the scripts for House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, and Tales of Terror, among others. He found solace in Serling and his unique approach to broadcast, creating some of the more memorable Twilight Zone episodes (including “Third from the Sun,” “The Invaders,” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Ft.”). But for many of us growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, Matheson left his mark with such memorable TV terrors as a modern vampire in Las Vegas, an unseen trucker taking on a scared suburban dad, and a certain killer Zuni Fetish doll.

Indeed, perhaps the most indelible character ever to come from Matheson’s mind wasn’t really his at all. Carl Kolchak, the grizzled investigative reporter who wound up uncovering ghouls, goblins, and ghosts instead of crime and corruption, was the invention of author Jeffrey Rice. Unable to get his first novel published, he was lucky enough to catch the eye of agent Rick Ray, who thought it would make a good movie. Enter Dan Curtis, who hired Matheson to write a treatment. The rest remains one of TV’s most highly rated original movies. A sequel, The Night Strangler, was quickly commissioned before Kolchak became a weekly character. While the series itself was short lived (Kolchak: The Night Stalker lasted only one season), it went on to influence countless others, including The X-Files, Millennium, and Fringe.

Throughout the rest of the decade, Matheson became even more famous, constantly name-checked by the current crop of writers such as King as being instrumental in their development as genre scribes. He also saw several of his previous works commissioned, including Bid Time Return (which became Somewhere in Time with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour), Stir of Echoes (with Kevin Bacon), and one of his best, What Dreams May Come (with Robin Williams and Annabella Sciorra). As the new millennium arrived, some of his short stories, including “Button, Button,” and “Steel,” inspired name titles including The Box, and Real Steel. An avid chronicler of his are of expertise, he appeared in several documentaries, including films focusing on Beaumont, Serling, and perhaps the most influential figure in all of modern macabre, Forrest J. Ackerman, publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.

For many, however, Matheson was not all that well known. His work was, especially among those who believed something like I Am Legend came fully formed and yet still flawed out of someone’s MacBook Pro, reserved for the nerdy and the geek. Others recognize his immense talents and sigh, Bradbury (and to some extent, Harlan Ellison) like, that he never got his due outside of print. Indeed, no one has made a decent version of Legend yet, and films like Stir and Dreams are dogged by issues having nothing to do with what Matheson wrote. Instead, he’s became a source to consider and then alter, like many in his particular field.

For those who truly loved the man, who used his work as the aforementioned gateway to bigger and more complicated concepts, it remains a major sticking point. Matheson, like those who came before and after, deserve more than a mere credit as part of some corporate creative process. Singular voices are hard to come by, let alone those that end up setting as many benchmarks as they tear down and rebuild. In modern American genre fiction, there are few that could match him. In death, maybe his legacy will be reborn to include more than a mere “based on” byline.

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