Ray Bradbury brought poetry to fantastic fiction and Rod Serling popularized it for the masses, but a third man was arguably the field’s most influential writer since H. P. Lovecraft. This was Richard Matheson, and if you don’t recognize his name as easily as those others, don’t worry: authors sure do. What Mr. Matheson did has since become commonplace, but in the mid-Twentieth century he hacked a path through weird fiction as if he were carrying a machete, and the writers who followed his trail are legion – and legend.
When Mr. Matheson’s first bylined professional short story, “Born of Man and Woman,” was published in Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1950, “horror” fiction was almost exclusively Gothic: set in dank catacombs or haunted mansions; told in an ornate, almost self-parodic style which might have been contemporary to, say, Edgar Allan Poe, but was growing tired in any lesser hands (and nearly all were lesser) than that odd antiquarian’s, the thirtysomething “Old Gentleman,” Lovecraft.
“Born of Man and Woman” is a “short-short.” It can’t be more than two thousand measly words. But crammed into those few pages is enough dread and otherness to fill a whole novel. It’s a tour de force, in both form and content, that jolts everyone who comes upon it. It’s set in a dungeon, but a far scarier one than those of puffy-shirt-era period pieces. There are modern touches: automobiles, a movie-star magazine. But the power issues from its point of view, and it’s a master class in the Lovecraft method of letting you fill in the details for yourself. Your imagination is more frightening than anything you can be told, as anyone knows who enters even a familiar room in pitch-blackness.
Mr. Matheson’s lasting contribution to fantasy fiction was to bring it into the present. It’s easy to shake off the events in an ancient Transylvanian castle, or to dismiss Colin Clive’s histrionic ravings at the dawn of the sound era in cinema, because we encounter them today at some remove. But when a pedophile abducts a child at the local McDonalds (Stephen King’s story “Popsy”), it’s suddenly a great deal closer to home. Mr. King is probably the most fervent Matheson acolyte: he’s certainly the very best at dropping strange events into the most mundane settings – turns out it’s far creepier that way. Without Richard Matheson, not only don’t you have Stephen King, but neither Dan Simmons, Rick McCammon, Joe Lansdale, Clive Barker, Peter Straub – all of them and many more are indebted to the guy who proved you can unnerve people even in full bright daylight.
Mssrs. Matheson and Serling crossed paths after the former had already turned to screenwriting; oddly enough, Mr. Matheson wrote most of those puffy-shirted Roger Corman “adaptations” of Poe stories. He was a frequent writer for the original TWILIGHT ZONE (I used to love it when Mr. Serling did a billboard for next week’s episode and used writers’ names; that’s also how I first heard of Charles Beaumont), including an adaptation of his own story “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” the one with William Shatner and the gremlin. Other Matheson stories auto-adapted for ZONE included “Third From the Sun,” “Death Ship,” “Little Girl Lost,” “Long Distance Call,” “Steel,” and “Mute.”
“Button, Button” became a big 2009 movie with Frank Langella called THE BOX. “Duel” inaugurated Steven Spielberg’s feature career. And Matheson novels are all over the screen: I AM LEGEND (filmed no fewer than three times), THE SHRINKING MAN (Universal added the word INCREDIBLE and changed it to WOMAN for Lily Tomlin), WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, BID TIME RETURN (you know it as SOMEWHERE IN TIME), HELL HOUSE, A STIR OF ECHOES.
If there’s a quickie narrative thread, it’s probably paranoia, but even more important is the same thing that continues to propel Mr. King’s career: these guys each draw recognizable characters that you might meet in the checkout line, and they can both spin, as the Brits say, a ripping yarn. Mr. Matheson didn’t even require spooks. I remember one of the happiest publishing days in my good friend Gary Goldstein’s life came in 1991, when he signed up a new Matheson Western(!) for Berkley Books. JOURNAL OF THE GUN YEARS was so sublime that it won the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award for Best Novel — and the author was a Western newbie.
I have a beautiful Matheson volume, COLLECTED STORIES (1988) from Jeff Conner’s Dream/Press. I hate to pull it out of the slipcase too often, because it’s signed by the author and I don’t want to mess it up from overuse. But it’s been out and open for the last few days, and I’ve been reading here and there. It is amazing how much of the short fiction holds up after as long as 63 years (“Born” hasn’t lost a drop of juice in that half century-plus). That’s the best thing about being – or reading – a great author: his work renders him immortal. Richard Matheson became immortal this past Sunday. And while we certainly grieve with R.C. and the rest of the family, at least we have his undying legacy to sustain us forever.