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!


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