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An Author Review: Richard Matheson
An Introduction to Richard Matheson
I would say my first introduction to who Richard Matheson was came when I learned that a movie which struck a chord with me was based upon a previously published work. What Dreams May Come is a favorite film of mine, due to the storyline and wonderful cinematic scenes portrayed for the viewer. When I learned it was a book I of course had to own it, and have enjoyed it greatly throughout the subsequent years.
This allowed me to enter a world that is a varied and as immense as any I have ever encountered. To say that Richard Matheson had an imagination is to say that Carter's had pills (that's for you old timers like me). Suffice it to say that his mind was as active as another author, one Steven King.
There will be those of you who shudder at my comparison of Matheson to King, but just wait: chances are that by the end of this article you might agree, and even run out to your local book store to purchase some of the works I will mention here.
Richard Matheson was born in early 1926 and by age thirty he had already published stories bound for the screen. Some of his early works may not be those that stand the test of time on their own but collectively they brand Matheson a free thinker, one whose imagination was unfettered and able to cross boundaries most people are unwilling to even approach.
To further introduce you to the author I will bring up a little story which has stood the test of time and has been made into a movie not once, not twice, not thrice but four times. Yes, the same story a movie four times! First as The Last Man On Earth, next as The Omega Man, once more as I Am Omega and finally I Am Legend. Oh, NOW you know it! I Am Legend was authored in 1954 and subsequently set the tune for all zombie movies for the next fifty years. The first film edition, The Last Man On Earth released in 1964 starred the horror king at the time, Vincent Price. The next, in 1971, starred Charlton Heston who acted in this film after Planet Of The Apes and followed it with Antony and Cleopatra and Soylent Green. The final two films appeared in 2007, one with Will Smith the star while the other was a direct to video DVD I Am Omega.
Oh, one more thing: I Am Legend was the impetus for the classic Night Of The Living Dead in 1968. So, quite a powerful little book, wouldn't you say?
Still not sure about him as an author? How about Stir of Echoes? Authored in 1958 and made into a film starring Kevin Bacon in 1999. How about Bid Time Return authored in 1975 and made into the film Somewhere In Time starring Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve in 1980? The Incredible Shrinking Man in 1956 and a film in 1957 is one more of his novels which were transformed into something for the silver screen.
Need more? How about Duel, which was made into a film and directed by a young Steven Spielberg and starred Dennis Weaver. I vividly remember this one. The storyline was a semi truck chasing and trying to run a terrified motorist (Weaver) off the road to kill him. I never looked at truck drivers the same after this.
He also authored one of my favorite episodes of the original Star Trek series, The Enemy Within. In this episode, some trouble with the transporter leads to a second Kirk beaming onto the ship; an evil Kirk. It seems his very essence has split to create two personas, one good and one evil. William Shatner plays both parts well and one is caught up in the thought that we all have this within us, waiting, waiting, waiting.
Matheson wrote for The Twilight Zone as well. I believe he authored twelve episodes for this ground breaking series, including those (in)famous words Rod Sterling spoke at the beginning and end of each show. He also wrote for Night Gallery and The Outer Limits, both similar shows to Twilight Zone. A couple of his scripts ought to be familiar to the casual viewer: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet and Button, Button.
Nightmare was an episode in the original Twilight Zone series and starred William Shatner as a terrified passenger on an airplane flying during a storm. While looking out the window he sees a figure on the wing of the plane, apparently tearing it apart. No one believes him, putting it off to his panic at flying. But later, they discover otherwise. This was also included in the film The Twilight Zone and starred John Lithgow.
Button, Button is another of his works that arrived as a Twilight Zone episode and made its way to the big screen and was entitled The Box. The premise was that a financially strapped person (in the film Cameron Diaz) found a box on her front step. A note saying that if she pushed the button, she would receive $1,000,000. But: somewhere in the world a person she did not know would die. Choices choices, what will she do?
Matheson had the ability to reach into people's hearts and souls to pull out that which could alternately uplift and terrorize them. He could share a moment to show compassion and love then turn around and terrify them.
Or he could do both at the same time. In his story Steel, which began as another Twilight Zone episode he shared with the reader the life of a boxing manager down on his luck. Seems his charge, an aging robot fighter is unable to meet the bell for a fight he badly needs the money for. The manager makes a decision: as an old boxer himself he decides to pretend to be a robot and fights in his charge's stead. The reader feels for this poor man, bent on nothing but survival and forced to step into the ring against an opponent he cannot hope to defeat. But he takes up the mantle and fights anyway. I recall this episode and in fact own a book containing the story. This story alternately forced me to be in the old boxer's shoes and to be terrified almost at the same time, feeling for him as he decides to do what he feels he must in order to survive. This was loosely developed into the film Real Steel starring Hugh Jackman and did quite well at the box office.
One of the most terrifying movies I saw as a youngster was Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Starring everybody's favorite father (Darren McGavin of A Christmas Story) as Kolchak, a reporter always trying to get The Next Big Story. This story is one that is out to get him, however. It involves a vampire and Kolchak's attempts to prove his existence. I recall setting in bed, covers around my face with only my eyes peering out. And I was 12 years old! Scary stuff!!
This was a work by another author but developed into a screenplay by Matheson so I guess some of the credit goes to that author. But knowing Matheson and his works I can definitely see his thumbprint on the storyline.
Matheson has been called The Father of the X-Files. Spielberg credits him with jump starting his career while likening him to Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. Ann Rice was influenced by him as a child. And Stephen King lists him as a creative influence on his writing and even dedicated a novel to him.
As a writer, this man influenced how we perceive terror, romance, and life. Through his assorted works he has brought us laughter and tears, humor and terror. Prolific, dedicated, and perhaps just a half a bubble off center he took us to the very edge and dared us to look over.
I still cover my eyes; well, sometimes.