In Memory of Richard Matheson

Posted by Neil McRobert on June 26, 2013 in News tagged with , , , , , ,

And so passes a giant. Richard Matheson, prolific author, screenwriter, and inspiration to authors of speculative fiction beyond count, died on June 23rd 2013. Matheson, whom most students of the Gothic encounter via his 1954 novel I Am Legend, was a key figure in the twentieth century landscape of Gothic, horror and fantasy. I Am Legend itself stands as a monument in the canon of vampire literature. Depicting the struggle of the last man on earth to survive a global vampire plague, Legend is also a meditation on loneliness, community, sexual ethics and—if it is not too bold—the nature of humanity. It is erroneously credited as the birth of the contemporary zombie story, a claim that goes some way to undermining the actual point of the novel. Instead Matheson is better appreciated as an important figure in the revision of the contemporary monster. Judith Halberstam writes that whereas the Gothic traditionally represents monsters as a threat, postmodern Gothic “warns us to be suspicious of monster hunters, monster makers, and above all, discourses invested in purity and innocence.”[1] Matheson’s vampire novel pre-empts this postmodern inversion decades earlier and is possibly the most influential fiction to deal with the undead since Dracula (1897). It has been filmed three times: as The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price; The Omega Man (1971), with Charlton Heston fighting vampires who look unnervingly like Jimmy Saville; and as I Am Legend (2007). None of the film adaptations have captured the power or complexity of Matheson’s source material, however. The breadth and depth of Matheson’s contribution to genre fiction is often undermined by a too-narrow focus on I Am Legend. Other novels include The Shrinking Man (1956), Stir Of Echoes (1958) Hell House (1971) and What Dreams May Come (1978), all of which have been adapted cinematically, with varying levels of success. The Shrinking Man in particular deserves more popular and critical recognition. As with I Am Legend, Matheson elevates a pulpy, B-movie plot into something profound. In the tale, Scott Cary is exposed (in true cold-war style) to a cloud of radioactive gas, as a result of which he begins to shrink by 1/7 of an inch a day (a figure that conveniently allows the more workable calculation of an inch per week). Although the novel and subsequent film revels in the conflict between the miniature Scott and a now-gigantic spider, Matheson’s story also offers an insight into the ego and esteem of a man in the process of being exiled from his own world. Scenes in which he attempts to make love to his wife are heartbreaking in their blackly comic depiction of physical incompatability: “he felt puny and absurd beside her, a ludicrous midget who had planned the seduction of a normal woman.”[2] Matheson excels in these moments of isolation, of humanity stretched to the absurd…but remaining stubbornly, indefatigably human. The final paragraphs of The Shrinking Man epitomises this ethos of enduring hope: There was much to be done and more to be thought about. His brain was teeming with questions and ideas and — yes — hope again. There was food to be found, water, clothing, shelter. And, most important, life. Who knew? It might be, it just might be there. Scott Carey ran into his new world, searching.[3] Matheson was also a master of the short story form. For anyone who has yet to discover the numerous, and hugely varied stories he produced in the magazines of pulps of the mid twentieth century I would recommend the three volume Collected Stories (Gauntlet Press, 2003). It is quiet incredible how many of these stories have entered into the consciousness of popular culture without reference to their author. For instance, Duel” (1971), the story of a man pursued by a maniacal truck-driver, was made into a theatrical film by a young Steven Spielberg. “Steel” (1956) was recently adapted as Real Steel (2011), starring Hugh Jackman. Perhaps the most iconic moment in all of Matheson’s writing is  “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (1963). In this story a salesman recovering from a recent nervous breakdown is making an airplane journey when he spots a gremlin on the wing of the plane. Convinced that the creature will cause the plane to crash he tries, and fails, to convince the other passengers of its existence. This story was originally written as an episode of the Twilight Zone—starring a young William Shatner—but has since entered into the fabric of popular culture, parodied in The Simpsons, Futurama, and restaged in various subsequent adaptations.

Bart Simpson encounters the gremlin.

“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is emblematic of Matheson’s focus on psychological isolation and paranoia, but to end I would like to mention a much more obscure story that, for me, encapsulates Matheson’s emotional power. In “The Conqueror” (1954) Matheson unravels the mythology of the Old West in tragic style. The story follows a young man named Riker whose ambition is to be the greatest gunslinger alive. He travels to Grantville to confront the veteran killer, Selkirk. The narrator admits that “I tried to understand young Riker but I couldn’t. He had come to Grantville with the deliberate intention of singling out the fastest pistolman and killing him face to face. That made no sense to me. That seemed a purposeless desire.”[4] It is only in the final lines of the story that we realise it is not a celebration of violence and bravery. “The Conquerer” is actually concerned with the consequences of impetuousness and the wayward glorification of violence. In many ways it is a reflection on the very nature of the western and its ethical implications. This self-reflection and unravelling of contemporary myths is perhaps Matheson’s greatest strength. He did it with vampires, with Cold War terrors, with the ghost story, with the western, and even with God (in What Dreams May Come) and he inspired others to progress beyond the simple horrors of pulp to a more emotional and intelligent register. It is perhaps fitting, then, that I end with words from Matheson’s most famous progeny, Stephen King. King, in an introduction to Matheson’s short fiction wrote: Be warned: you are in the hands of a writer who asks no quarter and gives none. He will wring you dry . . . and when you close this volume he will leave you with the greatest gift that a writer can give: He will leave you wanting more.[5] Sadly there is no more to come. But he left plenty for those yet to look.


[1] Judith Halberstam. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Durham, NC.: Duke University Press, 1995.) p.27 [2] Richard Matheson, The Shrinking Man (London: Gollancz, 2002) p.38. [3] ibid, p.200. [4] Richard Matheson, “The Conqueror” in Collected Stories: Volume Two (Colorado Springs: Gauntlet Press, 2003). [5] Stephen King, Introduction to Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: Horror Stories by Richard Matheson (New York: Tor, 2002).

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