Author, author: What you need to know about horror/sci-fi master Richard Matheson

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May 13, 2016, 5:18 PM EDT

When Ray Bradbury calls you one of the most important writers of the 20th century, it's safe to say you've been doing something right. Well, Bradbury did in fact say that about Richard Matheson, a man who can only be described as a titan of horror and science fiction. Some of his novels and short stories are undisputed masterworks, and in addition to the high  quality and groundbreaking nature of his writing, Matheson influenced scores of other authors and filmmakers.

What Matheson did so incredibly well was take the trappings of genre and move them into the modern world, a feat he achieved to brilliant effect in his 1954 novel I Am Legend. The story of a lonely man battling to stay alive in a world overrun by vampires, the novel created a scientific rationale for vampirism and brought the horror archetype out of the castles and cobwebs and into suburban California. Without his scenes of living corpses shambling through abandoned city streets, we probably wouldn't have Night of the Living Dead, The Walking Dead and the entire modern zombie genre.

If Matheson had just written I Am Legend, his place in genre history might be secure, but he penned dozens of novels and hundreds of short stories, in addition to numerous teleplays and movie scripts. His work was defined by its clear storytelling, his journalistic writing style, and his everyday characters -- regular working folks facing extraordinary or terrifying circumstances and decisions. His stories were also quite moving as well -- watch or read for example The Shrinking Man, which takes its pulpy sci-fi plot and turns it into a powerful meditation on the meaning of existence. It just doesn't get better than Matheson at his very best.

Here are eight things you need to know about Richard Matheson:


The Basics

Matheson was born in Allendale, New Jersey, on February 20, 1926, but his Norwegian immigrant parents divorced when he was eight years old and he lived in Brooklyn with his mother. He managed to publish his first short story when he was around the same, in a local newspaper called The Brooklyn Eagle, but his writing career didn't begin in earnest until 1950, after he had done a stint in the Army during World War II, attended the University of Missouri for journalism and ended up moving to California. It was there that he wrote his earliest novels -- Hunger & Thirst, which went unpublished for decades, Someone is Bleeding and Fury on Sunday -- and first attracted attention through his chilling 1950 short story "Born of Man and Woman." He married his wife Ruth in 1952 and was married to her until his death on June 23, 2013. The couple had four children, two sons and two daughters, three of whom became writers too (including Richard Christian Matheson, pictured above with Dad).


The Novels

There's no question that Matheson's best known novel is I Am Legend (1954), his third published book and one of the all-time masterpieces of both sci-fi and horror. The book combined the two genres in the story of Robert Neville, the last man left alive after a pandemic wipes out most of humanity and turns the rest into vampires. The modern-day setting and hero, the scientific explanations for the "symptoms" of vampirism and the powerful twist at the end were all groundbreaking for their time, with the book having a lasting impact on the horror genre, the zombie subgenre, and post-apocalyptic fiction to this day. His other standout books included another masterpiece, The Shrinking Man (1956), along with the ghost story A Stir of Echoes (1958), the haunted house thriller Hell House (1971) the time-traveling romance Bid Time Return (1975) and the dark fantasy What Dreams May Come (1978). 


The Short Stories

"Born of Man and Woman" -- about a mutant child chained up in his parents' basement, told from its point of view -- put Matheson on the map and was his first professional sale. His stories were frequently minimalistic in style and often featured a twist ending, which is why many of them were adapted to The Twilight Zone. Among his most famous stories were "Steel" (adapted for The Twilight Zone and as a movie, Real Steel) "Button, Button" (also adapted for both The Twilight Zone and as a movie, The Box), "Prey" (adapted as one third of a TV movie anthology called Trilogy of Terror), "Nightmare on 20,000 Feet," "Third from the Sun" and many more. A lot of his best stories were collected in four books in the '60s and '70s -- Shock, Shock II, Shock III and Shock Waves -- that were the gateway to Matheson's work for a certain generation of fans.


Matheson at the Movies

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Matheson's work has not only been regularly adapted for film, but he himself worked as a screenwriter on both his own adaptations and a lot of classic genre cinema. I Am Legend alone was filmed three times -- as The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971) and I Am Legend (2007) -- and although all three have their pros and cons, there has yet to be a definitive screen version of that book. Bid Time Return was made as Somewhere in Time (1980) with Christopher Reeve and became a cult favorite. Other Matheson adaptations (many of them scripted by the author himself) include The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957, one of the best sci-fi films of all time), The Legend of Hell House (1973), What Dreams May Come (1998), Stir of Echoes (1999), The Box (2009) and Real Steel (2011). Matheson's other scripts include several of Roger Corman's Poe series, including Fall of the House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963). He also co-scripted Burn, Witch, Burn! (1962) with Charles Beaumont and George Baxt, and adapted Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out (1968) as one of Hammer's very best horror films.


Matheson on TV

Television was another tremendous outlet for Matheson's work, both for his own stories and adaptations of others. Some 16 Twilight Zone episodes were either adapted by Rod Serling from a Matheson story or adapted/penned by the author himself, including "Third From The Sun," "And When the Sky was Opened," "The Last Flight," "Nick of Time," "The Invaders," "Little Girl Lost," "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" and "Night Call." He also wrote the early good Kirk/bad Kirk episode of Star Trek, "The Enemy Within," contributed to shows like The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Thriller, Have Gun, Will Travel and others, and wrote some of the best horror TV movies of the '70s, including The Night Stalker (1972) and its sequel, The Night Strangler (1973), Trilogy of Terror (1975), an adaptation of Dracula (1974), and Duel (1971), which launched the career of a young director named Steven Spielberg. TV was very good to Matheson -- and vice versa.


Matheson and Other Writers

Matheson's impact on most modern horror and suspense fiction cannot be denied, with no less a master than Stephen King calling Matheson "the author who influenced me the most as a writer." Ray Bradbury named Matheson as one of the most important writers of the 20th century, while Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, Anne Rice, Joe Hill and others have all praised his talents. Matheson impacted a number of filmmakers as well, including Steven Spielberg, George A. Romero (whose Night of the Living Dead was loosely inspired by I Am Legend), Guillermo Del Toro and Edgar Wright. 


The Southern California School of Writers

In the 1950s and '60s, Matheson was part of a writers' group -- known by several names, including the above, "The Group" and the "Southern California Sorcerers" -- that came to dominate horror and science fiction in books, television and movies for better than a decade. In addition to Matheson, its roster included Harlan Ellison, Rod Serling, Robert Bloch (Psycho), Jerry Sohl, Ray Russell, Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), William F. Nolan, George Clayton Johnson (Logan's Run) and Charles Beaumont -- a who's-who of genre writing that would get together, critique each other's work, bounce ideas off each other and help each other land and sometimes even finish script assignments. It was a writing class and creative circle of friends the likes of which we'll probably never see again, along with the unforgettable quality and quantity of work that emerged from it (Matheson is on the far right in the above photo, with Beaumont to his left).


Random facts

1) Matheson based a lot of his stories on specific incidents that happened in his own life: Duel, for example, was inspired by a frightening incident in which he and a friend were tailgated by a large truck on a highway. I Am Legend was inspired by watching Bela Lugosi as Dracula and thinking about what would happen if there was a world full of vampires instead of just one. 2) In addition to his work in horror and sci-fi, Matheson also enjoyed writing Westerns -- he penned four Western novels in the 1990s alone. 3) He also wrote the script for Jaws 3-D, a disastrous Nazi comedy called Loose Cannons, and The Morning After (1974) a seminal TV movie about alcoholism starring Dick Van Dyke. 4) Matheson was a working writer until almost the end -- his last novel, a semi-autobiographical work called Generations, was published in 2012.