'The Best of Richard Matheson' Is Among the Best of Pop Culture

Richard Matheson's work has so permeated modern pop culture that it can 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.

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

Richard Matheson


October 2017

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.

Related Articles Around the Web




Dancing in the Street: Our 25 Favorite Motown Singles

Detroit's Motown Records will forever be important as both a hit factory and an African American-owned label that achieved massive mainstream success and influence. We select our 25 favorite singles from the "Sound of Young America".


The Durutti Column's 'Vini Reilly' Is the Post-Punk's Band's Definitive Statement

Mancunian guitarist/texturalist Vini Reilly parlayed the momentum from his famous Morrissey collaboration into an essential, definitive statement for the Durutti Column.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

What Will Come? COVID-19 and the Politics of Economic Depression

The financial crash of 2008-2010 reemphasized that traumatic economic shifts drive political change, so what might we imagine — or fear — will emerge from the COVID-19 depression?


Datura4 Take Us Down the "West Coast Highway Cosmic" (premiere)

Australia's Datura4 deliver a highway anthem for a new generation with "West Coast Highway Cosmic". Take a trip without leaving the couch.


Teddy Thompson Sings About Love on 'Heartbreaker Please'

Teddy Thompson's Heartbreaker Please raises one's spirits by accepting the end as a new beginning. He's re-joining the world and out looking for love.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Little Protests Everywhere

Wherever you are, let's invite our neighbors not to look away from police violence against African Americans and others. Let's encourage them not to forget about George Floyd and so many before him.


Carey Mercer's New Band Soft Plastics Score Big with Debut '5 Dreams'

Two years after Frog Eyes dissolved, Carey Mercer is back with a new band, Soft Plastics. 5 Dreams and Mercer's surreal sense of incongruity should be welcomed with open arms and open ears.


Sondre Lerche Rewards 'Patience' with Clever and Sophisticated Indie Pop

Patience joins its predecessors, Please and Pleasure, to form a loose trilogy that stands as the finest work of Sondre Lerche's career.


Ruben Fleischer's 'Venom' Has No Bite

Ruben Fleischer's toothless antihero film, Venom is like a blockbuster from 15 years earlier: one-dimensional, loose plot, inconsistent tone, and packaged in the least-offensive, most mass appeal way possible. Sigh.


Cordelia Strube's 'Misconduct of the Heart' Palpitates with Dysfunction

Cordelia Strube's 11th novel, Misconduct of the Heart, depicts trauma survivors in a form that's compelling but difficult to digest.


Reaching For the Vibe: Sonic Boom Fears for the Planet on 'All Things Being Equal'

Sonic Boom is Peter Kember, a veteran of 1980s indie space rockers Spacemen 3, as well as Spectrum, E.A.R., and a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff. On his first solo album in 30 years, he urges us all to take our foot off the gas pedal.


Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!

The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late '40s and '50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.