You may not know the name Richard Matheson.  But if you've
encountered any stories about zombies or vampires or haunted
houses—and who hasn't these days?—you’ve felt his influence
at work.  Before
Twilight, there was Matheson.  Before The
Exorcist
, there was Matheson.  Before World War Z, there was
Matheson.  Before Stephen King,
there was Matheson.  

He also dealt with, among other tasty
subjects, extrasensory perception,
time travel, outer space, ghosts and
(my personal favorite) premature
burial.  If it howls in the dark or creeps
in the night, Matheson has his finger-
prints on it.  In other words, few authors
since Edgar Allan Poe and H.G. Wells
have discovered more ways to scare
and enchant an audience.  

Richard Matheson never enjoyed much
name recognition during the course of his 87 years.  Nor does he
get mentioned when literati make lists of the great West Coast
writers of the last half-century.  But almost everybody knows his
stories.  They have probably seen one of the three film versions of
his book
I Am Legend—picked as the best vampire story of the
century by the Horror Writers Association—or the famous zombie
film it inspired,
Night of the Living Dead.  Or they saw one of the
many
Twilight Zone episodes he wrote, most notably "Nightmare at
20,000 Feet," featuring a young William Shatner and an ugly gremlin
jumping on the wing of a passenger plane. Or they have encountered
"The Enemy Within," a script he wrote for a slightly older Shatner on
Star Trek. Or they saw Steven Spielberg's film of Matheson’s screen-
play
Duel, or one of the many other adaptations of his tales.

My personal introduction to Richard Matheson
came around the age of ten, when I read his
novel
The Shrinking Man.  I'm amazed at how
much I remember from this book so many years
later.  I even still recall the exact rate of the
hero's shrinkage—one-seventh of an inch per
day.  And I must have had nightmares for many
months over the tiny protagonist's battle with a
comparatively enormous spider, with only a
sewing needle for self-protection.  The scene
is classic Matheson, ostensibly ludicrous in
conception, but gut-wrenchingly scary in
execution. Just like that goofy gremlin jumping
on the wing of the plane.  You laugh, but only
until the lights go out.  And if you could count
the cumulative number of nightmares inspired
by different writers, Matheson has to be in
contention for the top spot.   

But don’t just take the word of my 10-year-old younger self. Consult
the experts, namely the other authors who have staked their
reputations on writing nightmare-inspiring horror stories.  Stephen
King, who at last count has sold some 350 millions books, has
declared:  "Without Richard Matheson, I wouldn't be around."  Anne
Rice has cited him as a major influence.  So has
Neil Gaiman.  But
even more common are the many writers who have 'borrowed'
Matheson's ideas and plots for their own successful projects without
ever crediting him.  If you know what to look for, you will find his
influence almost everywhere in our current pop culture.  When the
other genre writers got together to write a tribute book a few years
back, they aptly entitled it
He is Legend.  And he is, albeit only in
certain circles.  You won’t find Matheson's books taught on college
campuses or praised by trendy French literary critics, but the authors
and screenplay writers who count their fans in the tens of millions
know who he is, and have learned from his example.  


Related Essays
Hell House by Richard Matheson
What Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson


My most recent recounter with Matheson came via his novel Hell
House
, which Stephen King has aptly praised as "the scariest
haunted house novel ever written."  In an eerie coincidence, I was
reading the closing pages of this book on the very day that Matheson
died. And I found that my perceptions of Matheson as an adult reader
of literary fiction aren't that much different from my reactions as
a young connoisseur of scary pulp fiction tales and sci-fi.  Matheson
is a master of plot and pacing, mood and suspense.  He can
spin
a yarn
, as the saying goes.  He knows when to go 'old school'—and
what  could possibly be more 'old school' than a ghost story?—but
also when to add a new, post-atomic twist to the proceedings.  He
always had one foot in the ancient world of myth and legend, and
another in the most contemporary elements of the modern day,
straight from the morning newspaper.  This odd mixture allowed him
to  revitalize the various genre categories he addressed during his
career, even if he were following in the footsteps of centuries of
predecessors.

For the record, Matheson always objected to his status as a 'horror'
writer and preferred the term 'terror'—although I'm not sure this is
a distinction understood by most of his audience. "To me, horror
connotes blood and guts," Matheson has explained, "while terror
is a much more subtle art, a matter of stirring up primal fears."  
Some of Matheson's best work relies on this "subtle art"—for
example the now classic movie
Duel (originally a made-for-
television film directed by 24-year-old Steven Spielberg in his
first full-length outing), which extracts maximum suspense and,
yes, terror, out of a simple cat-and-mouse game played on the
roadways.  This encounter between a  Peterbilt 281 tanker truck
with a psychotic apparently behind the wheel and
a red Plymouth driven by a salesman played by
Dennis Weaver required no expensive special
effects or elaborately choreographed fight
scenes.  Yet the tension of watching this movie
is almost unbearable—largely because, as
Matheson (as well as Spielberg) understood,
the implication of what 'might' happen is always
more spine-tingling than what 'does' happen. In
Duel, the possibility of that 'might happen'
hovers over almost  every scene in the movie.

We can see in such moments that Matheson's
truest counterpart is Alfred Hitchcock, the pre-
eminent master of suspense by implication.  With Hitchcock, this skill
may have been instilled by the imposed requirements of cinema
censorship during his career, which made blood and gore off limits
and forced filmmakers into subtler evocations of violence. Hitchcock
fought constantly against the restrictions of the Motion Picture
Production Code, and at the end of his life when the rating system
was introduced, he took advantage of the new freedoms with his
R-rated
Frenzy.  Yet by that time Hitchcock had learned every trick
of creating suspense with the smallest of means. I recall reading
that there were only 12 acts of violence in Hitchcock's
North by
Northwest
, but 19 in Disney's The
Little Mermaid
. As Duel makes
clear, Matheson could make do
with even fewer.  The scariest
author of his generation, Matheson
could also be one of the most
controlled and restrained.  

He also knew when to put aside the
terror and build stories from kinder,
gentler emotions.  His time travel
novel
Bid Time Return (also known
as
Somewhere in Time) is really a
romance novel, anticipating in many
ways Audrey Niffenegger’s
The Time
Traveler’s Wife. His life-after-death novel What Dreams May Come
is one of the great romantic ghost stories, but with the love angle
more than countering the darker themes of the book.  And in a
strange move,from an author who built his career on strange
moves, Matheson even included a complete bibliography of non-
fiction works at the back of this novel, shared along with repeated
reassurances to his readers that they too could be reunited with
their loved ones after they've shaken off their mortal coil.

I sense that Matheson viewed this particular book with special
fondness, seeing it as a psychological counterweight to his many
other tales of matters macabre.  True, several of his other books
convey the message that we survive our bodily deaths, although
seldom with the upbeat angle applied in
What Dreams May Come.  
But with Matheson now having left us himself, we hardly need to
apply metaphysical measures to gauge his after-death survival.  
His books assure him of that.  He will continue to delight, fascinate
and—most of all—terrify for many decades to come. As with the
zombies and vampires he wrote about, the end may be, in fact, just
the start.  



Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture.  He is
currently working on his ninth book,
Love Songs: A Secret History,
which will be published by Oxford University Press.


This article was published on June 26, 2013
The Scariest of Them All:
A Tribute to Richard Matheson

By Ted Gioia
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Richard Matheson
The Shrinking Man...my worst nightmare at age 10
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

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