Save perhaps Stephen King, no other modern writer has been as successfully prolific as the late Richard Matheson. With seemingly innumerable television and film adaptations of his work, chances are that, even if you’re unfamiliar with his name, you’ve seen his work played out on screens both large and small. Like King, who himself claims Matheson as a primary influence on his own work, Matheson managed to write successfully across myriad genres. From horror to science fiction to noir to westerns to the absurd, there was little at which, it seems, Matheson did not try his hand at least once. That so much of his work has been used as the basis for television and film speaks to the level of his creativity, each work largely standing on its own and neither derivative of nor reliant upon the same handful of literary tropes.
The Best of Richard Matheson shows the scope of Matheson’s work and strength as a writer in miniature. Take, for instance, the sumptuousness of a sentence like the following from “Dance of the Dead”: “Thoughts moved with a tranquil lethargy, her brain a leisurely machine imbedded in swaths of wooly packing.” Almost poetic, it perfectly encapsulates the return to consciousness of the character Peggy following the rather traumatic viewing of the titular dance and accompanying substances, putting in to luscious verbiage a sensation well-known to those who’ve overindulged in one substance or another.
Conversely, he could be extremely concise and utilitarian, almost Hemingway-esque, in his approach to scene setting. The nightmarish “The Prisoner” begins almost tersely, jolting the reader as much as the title character into a world underscored by tremulous confusion: “When he woke up he was lying on his right side. He felt a prickly wool blanket against his cheek. He saw a steel wall in front of his eyes. He listened. Dead silence. His ears strained for sound. There was nothing.” In these seven short sentences, Matheson has drawn the reader in, set the scene, established tension and, in so few words, painted a complete picture of the horrifyingly disorienting situation into which the prisoner finds himself.
As evidenced in Penguin Classics’ new collection of Matheson short stories selected and edited by Victor LaValle, he was capable of altering his voice to suit the tone of the story. Whether it be the New York City tough whose spot-on vernacular is captured in “Man with a Club”, the morally ambiguous wife who yearns for greater financial freedom in “Button, Button”, or the surrealistic nightmare that is “Dance of the Dead”, his way with words never comes across as emanating from the author himself, but rather the characters he creates. His characters are fully-realized, believable individuals whose position in life (as well as philosophically, ideologically, politically and otherwise) is quickly established within the first few lines of the story in question.
Indeed, Matheson shows himself to be the master of finding horror in the everyday, the mundane (more than one story centers on a phone call that sets the action in motion), casting his characters in unnerving and often surreally fantastic situations. With such a fertile, creative mind and strong, accessible writing style, it’s little surprise his level of influence on modern horror and sci-fi writers (both King and Neil Gaiman sing Matheson’s praises) as well as providing a rich collection of worlds from which filmmakers can draw. His I Am Legend alone has been adapted three separate times (The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971) and I Am Legend (2007)) since its initial appearance in 1954, while Hell House stands at the top of the haunted house heap along with Shirley Jackson’s equally genre-defining The Haunting of Hill House.
No fewer than five of the stories collected here served as the basis for Twilight Zone episodes (“Third from the Sun”, “Mute”, “Death Ship”, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, and “Button, Button”, the latter being used in the mid-’80s series reboot and the basis for the 2009 film The Box). Even Family Guy got into the act with the season eight episode “The Splendid Source”, adapting the story of the same name Matheson had written for Playboy in 1956. In other words, the work of Richard Matheson has so permeated modern pop culture that it can often be hard to find works not at least partially indebted to an idea of his or, as is more often the case, someone influenced by him.
Gathering 33 of Matheson’s more well-known yet often less anthologized stories, The Best of Richard Matheson clearly shows why his work has been so successful in terms of it being translated to the screen. Everyone knows, for instance, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, whether from the original Twilight Zone series or the anthology film released in the early ’80s; the terror of some unknown creature or being lurking on the wing of a transcontinental airline and seen by only one passenger (William Shatner or John Lithgow, depending on your preferred version) who’s eventually driven mad by the experience. Perhaps less remembered is “Duel”, the story of a psychopathic truck driver and the man standing in his way that, when adapted for television in 1971, helped launch the career of a young director by the name of Steven Spielberg.
Indeed, it’s very nearly impossible to overstate the importance of Matheson’s contributions to popular culture and our modern perception of horror both supernatural (“Haircut”, “The Funeral”), psychological (“Button, Button”, “Day of Reckoning”) and, in the case of the darkly humorous “One for the Books”, the absurd. The Best of Richard Matheson is a fine collection of some of the best short works from one of the great writers of the 20th (or any, really) century.