R.I.P. Richard Matheson
Without Richard Matheson, there would be no “There’s a creature out on the wing of the plane!” Without Richard Matheson, there would be no X-Files. Without Richard Matheson there would be no Night of the Living Dead and that means there might not be this entire zombie apocalypse culture that we enjoy as horror fans today.
“I Am Legend,” is a simple idea with a nifty twist. If you’ve never read it, I’m kind of spoiling it here (and please do not judge it based on its film adaptations—“The Last Man on Earth” is the best of them but “Omega Man” and Will Smith’s “I Am Legend” stray far from the source). Go out and get it. It’s the tale of a world overrun with the undead—not flesh eating zombies but rather, vampires. The vampires are not the gothic, Dracula types that had come before, they were your friends and neighbors. They’d lost a lot of what made them who they’d been and were sort of sluggish and dumb. Matheson took the idea that, the way vampires multiply, they could eventually overtake the world. He goes on to wonder, what if you were a lone survivor, maybe THE lone survivor, of this scenario. How would you spend your days and your terrifying nights? How would you avoid the creatures that surrounded you? It was the first really modern look at vampires and updated the creatures accordingly, blending science with folklore. There was still the sexual undertones, the females positioning their bodies outside Neville’s door to try and lure him out…Neville, getting an erotic thrill from dispatching the female monsters…it retained much of the classic trappings; garlic, crosses, daylight—and turned them on their heads. He followed the idea to its only logical conclusion, not forcing the narrative to go somewhere convenient, and we are the beneficiaries of this nightmare. This is the book that inspired George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” (he says himself that he basically “ripped it off,” though that’s a stretch, he certainly took it in his own direction). He turned the vampires into thoughtless, flesh eating corpses, risen from the grave to hunt the living and overrun the world and with that film and concept a much bigger landscape of horror was born. Now, zombies are part of or pop culture consciousness and everyone knows what that apocalypse will look like. It’s a scary book with a great ending, I highly, highly recommend it.
Richard Matheson is as responsible for that, if not more, than Romero.
Of course, he gave us a lot more than “I Am Legend.” He penned, “The Shrinking Man,” “Hell House,” “A Stir of Echoes,” and “What Dreams May Come,” all of which have been adapted to film. He wrote a ton of “Twilight Zone,” episodes, he wrote for “Star Trek,” and he wrote the story that became Steven Spielberg’s first major gig, “Duel.” He also wrote the teleplay to the original, “Night Stalker” TV movie, which returned to vampire territory—this time playing the vampire as a sort of serial killer—and introduced us to the great, rumpled reporter, Carl Kolchak. A TV series was born out of that TV movie, “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” in which Darren McGavin’s Kolchak wound up on the trail of a different monster each week. “X-Files,” creator, Chris Carter has stated this as the inspiration for his own “monster of the week,” show. There was a lot of other TV writing as well as novels, short stories and nonfiction too. He kept writing up through 2012, still going strong.
Richard Matheson died today at the age of 87. According to his daughter, he was surrounded by loved ones. We lost one of the great ones. He will be missed.