Pulling Matheson from the Cobwebs

Richard Matheson remains one of the best kept secrets in literature, especially in the fields of horror, science fiction and weird tales, in which he has long specialized.If you’re one of those readers whose response to that sentence is, ‘Who’s Richard Matheson?’ then you’ve just made my point.

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Matheson the Master

Odds are, however, that you are already very familiar with his work.The irony that has long surrounded Matheson is that his much of work in fiction, television and cinema is among the most visible and popular stuff out there, but his name remains largely unknown, except for outré freaks like myself and Herr Isler, my equally esoteric writing partner.

Which, considering the awesome quality of his writing, is a major injustice, not only to Matheson himself – who remains active as a writer to this day, and a resident of Southern California – but to the many readers and viewers who are thereby denied knowledge of his work.

Want a few examples?

If you’re a baby boomer (or just a fan of cable TV reruns) you’re no doubt familiar with such classics as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “The Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek” (with the original Kirk, Spock & Co. crew).Many of the episodes of those programs, including many of the very best, are the products of Matheson’s remarkable pen.The next time the Sci-Fi Channel does its Twilight Zone marathon, check out the credits. It will blow your mind how many are Matheson’s.

If you like things on the romantic side, you might know of the film “Somewhere In Time” (1980) with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. It was based on his novel Bid Time Return, still one of the best time travel romances ever written.

If you’re a Steven Spielberg fan, you might know of his first movie, a made-for-TV classic “Duel” (1971) which starred Dennis Weaver in a masterly performance. That movie – about a man on the highway trying to escape an 18-wheeler with a horrifically maniacal determination to kill him – ranks #67 on Bravo’s “Scariest Movie Moments.”

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The malevolent mechanical monster from “Duel”

(No diss to Stephen King here, but a number of his automobile-oriented works, including “Trucks,” “Maximum Overdrive” and “Christine,” were obviously inspired by that film which, by the way, is still available on DVD.)

If your cup of tea is oriented toward the afterlife, check out another Matheson screenplay (or its considerably better novel) What Dreams May Come.

If what you’re after is good old-fashioned nailbiting horror, then allow me to suggest one of Matheson’s best novels, Hell House, which takes Shirley Jackson’s insanely haunted house idea a few frightening steps further. The book itself is a marvelous read and the movie that sprang from it, the under-appreciated “Legend of Hell House,” (1973) with an incredible performance from Roddy McDowell as a terrified psychic, is definitely worth your time.

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The aptly-named “Hell House” (from the 1973 poster)

For those who are much younger, the genius behind last year’s “I Am Legend,” a movie which, at least to me, had a number of truly chilling moments, was – you guessed it – Richard Matheson.His early novel of the same name was made into a total of three good films, 1964’s “The Last Man On Earth” with a creepy Vincent Price, and 1971’s“The Omega Man,” with a machismo Charlton Heston.

I could go on and on about Matheson’s work, and I haven’t even begun to touch on his serious fiction (the gripping WWII novel The Beardless Warriors, for example) or his early paperback releases, often with gritty noir or Western settings.

A lot of those early works were written when Matheson was a member of an informal group of Californian authors which included Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Charles Beaumont and others.

All of them were great, of course, and each had his own distinctive style. Matheson’s trademark has always been a refreshingly direct, conversational and a clear and determined approach to story. He is a writer who puts a great deal of effort into his plots, knowing that the characters and theme will naturally fall into place, and they always do. He has always had the knack of making the most extraordinary supernatural events utterly real and believable. One of his earlier sci-fi novels, The Shrinking Man, is perhaps his best example of that rare skill. Believe me, it’s a hell of a lot harder than it sounds.

The point is that if you love the macabre, adventure,horror and strange goings-on of just about every variety, then Richard Matheson is a writer you really should get to know.

A final note: When Chaosicon was getting ready to go to press, Mani and I had to come up with a few “jacket blurbs” by other authors to adorn the book’s cover.Both of us immediately chose Matheson as a prospect, so I wrote him, requesting the favor. We never got the Matheson blurb, as owners of the book already know, but we did get the postcard pictured below, which made our day.

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A class act all the way!


The Orphanage

Lovecraft once famously said of horror fiction that atmosphere is the absolute, most important thing.Truer words were never spoken, and for fans of what might be called “softer” horror – such classics as “The Haunting,” “The Changeling,” and “The Others” – this is particularly true. When one doesn’t have dismemberment, slimy creatures, great fountains of gushing blood, torture or power tools to hold the audience’s attention, atmosphere is the final trump card.

The Spanish film “The Orphanage” (recently released on DVD) is a movie in the latter tradition, one of relatively few excellent ghost movies to have been made recently –or ever,if the truth be told. The product of first-time director and writer Juan Antonia Bayona and Sergio Sanchez (and produced by Guillermo Del Toro, who directed the excellent “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone”) the movie is a minor masterpiece of wonderfully eerie atmosphere.

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 Say hello to my little — dead — friend.

 Set in the hauntingly beautiful Cantabria region of northern Spain, the movie is visually high gothic, with misty seacoasts replete with shadowy caves and an appropriately Addamsesque old mansion with long dark corridors and hidden rooms. A melancholy score accents rainy and nocturnal landscapes, all of it combining to create a finely tuned sense of something very sinister lurking somewhere, just out of the range of vision and perception.

The story is no less subtle and gothic than the setting. The mansion in question is actually a former orphanage, in which the female protagonist, Laura, portrayed beautifully by Belén Rueda, spent her own youth. There are indeed troubled slivers of the past slipping through the musty old place – and equally disturbing goings-on in the present, especially when Laura’s adopted son inexplicably disappears.

There is an underlying mystery to the story, which achieves the neat trick of leaving the ultimate answer to the viewer. In other words, is the wretched old manse haunted or is something else entirely going on?Or, perhaps, both?The question is discussed intriguingly by Bayona in a web interview on The Deadbolt.com (http://www.thedeadbolt.com/news/102913/bayonasanchez_interview.php).

Saying much more about the story would amount to plot-killing. Suffice to say that there are plenty of worthy scares– and one or two downright spine-chilling moments – in “The Orphanage,” as well as a story that is not only spooky but essentially human and infinitely sad.That’s a very fine and delicate balance to achieve in film, and Bayona and Sanchez pull it off with style and grace.

If horror with only a light dash of gore – but heavy on the fear factor and rich in atmosphere– is your cup of tea, check this one out.

Salutations

Dear Surfers and fellow Darksters:

”Blog” – what a strangely fascinating, Cyber-age, word. Almost rhymes with “Blob,” which – as I believe is written somewhere else on this website – was the movie that originally interested my partner-in-gore, Mani Isler, in the overall subject of horror.

Not me. The nail in the coffin for me was a sub-B movie from Britain called “Horrors of the Black Museum.” I saw it when I was 9 or 10 years old, a year or two after it came out, already being recycled on TV, no doubt on “Shock Theater” or “Creature Features,” two marvelous Friday night horror-fests that were put on by Denver’s Channel 2 back in the dark old days.

The infamous “Black Museum” featured a diabolical pair of binoculars, given to an unsuspecting scream queen (pretty, in an early-60s kind of way, but whose name I never knew) by the dastardly villain of the movie. She opened the nicely wrapped gift box, promptly put the binoculars to her eyes and proceeded to adjust the focus.

Big mistake.

Instantly, out of the eyepieces projected two horrific spikes, dreadfully sharp and long, which bore themselves into the poor woman’s eyes and, no doubt, her brain.

Yowza!

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“Horrors of the Black Museum” — hey, you ain’t kidding!

The utter dread I experienced while hearing her scream, and watching the blood flow from between the fingers which covered her ex-eyes, would eventually transform itself into the horror-writing freak you now behold and whose words you are presently reading.

There were many stops along the course of this evolution, of course.  All the old Universal classics.  The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits.  Boris Karloff’s Thriller (Yeah!). Poe.  Stoker.  Lovecraft.  Matheson.  King.  Even a little Maurice Level (mercilessly cruel endings) and Poppy Z. Brite (astonishingly bizarre and uncompromisingly horrific, but brilliant at the same time).

All of which leads me to that which I presume led you here – a love of horror. All horror freaks have a starting point – a movie, short story or novel, perhaps even a poem or a painting, a particularly macabre piece of music – which lit that original spark. I’d love to hear from others like myself what that spark might have been, what circumstances surrounded its lighting, what effects it has had on your lives and your appreciation of the dark and horrific.More than this, my partner-in-gore and I would love to hear your comments about anything in the wide and wonderful world of the macabre, whether new or old, whether written, filmed, televised or recorded, whether good reviews or bad, whether just shooting the breeze or waxing all intellectual and literary.

That includes, of course, our own contribution to the genre, Chaosicon, which I presume some of you have read and others might consider reading in the future. Go ahead, savage it, if you will. (We can take it, rest assured, but occasional praise is welcome too.)

Upon which subject, allow me to submit for your consideration a little anecdote about the novel. Although the cover with which it was originally released by Write Way is a lovely specimen (and full deserving kudos goes to artist Gail Cross for that) it was not the original idea. That came from my ultra-talented sister-in-law, Vicki McDonald Leppek, who painted the macabre masterpiece below. It features Nyx, the ancient Greek goddess of the night, who is spreading her mythological cloak (denoting not only nightfall but the primacy of Chaos) over the unsuspecting American town of Coffeyville. It’s full of mystical symbolism which readers of the novel can have fun trying to decipher, based on the story.

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The lovely and eternal “Nyx” by Vicki McDonald-Leppek

Long story short: Although Mani and I both loved the painting and its uncompromising aspect of terror, our erstwhile publisher felt it way over the top, likely to discourage counter sales, perhaps even lead to complaints about its, shall we say, skeletal nudity. The publisher flatly nixed the idea (pun fully intended!) and the cover came out quite differently.

So here it is at last – unveiled before what I sincerely hope will be a fully appreciative audience – the dark goddess Nyx in all her nocturnal and chaotic glory.

A final note: This delightfully sanguine website is the imaginative progeny of webmaster Jack Strube, a techie who not only loves the macabre but might be one of the world’s most authoritative Star Wars experts. He’s damnably good at what he does, as you can see, and can be reached via this website.

Goodnight kiddies, til next time!

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