The passing of a Master
RIP RICHARD MATHESON
Richard Matheson passed away 8 days ago on the 23rd of June 2013. He was 87 years old.
This is pretty much the end of an era when you consider that Matheson was one of the last living writers to have contributed to Weird Tales Magazine during its original incarnation. Two of Mr. Matheson’s contributions were “Slaughter House” in the July 1953 issue and “Wet Straw” which appeared in the January 1953 issue. The first Richard Matheson story that I can specifically remember reading as a “Richard Matheson” story was the wonderful “maybe” vampire story “Drink my Blood”. Even as a 11 year old with puberty up around the bend this short masterpiece showed me that sometimes the horrors of (possible) insanity and definite ostracization were more frightening than anything of supernatural origin. This is a concept that I found genuinely upsetting at the time and the feeling hasn’t left me to this very day. What made it all the more powerful was this was a time of life where you slowly begin to realize that the world has its dark places that are slowly becoming revealed to you even though they are still beyond your comprehension and that maybe childhood could be a much more horrible place than you had ever imagined before. One that you were lucky to get out of in one piece. This was one of my first exposures to the horrors that lie at the periphery of our existences. As an adult you can filter this out, as a child though, it was almost a kind of epiphany.
Because of both his short fiction and his screenplays I was aware of Mr. Matheson at a very early age. It was always a great joy to find a collection of his stories or to see his name during the opening credits of a film. To me his name became a genre version of the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval”.
Mr. Matheson’s first published story was Born of Man and Woman which was originally published in the July 1950 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. 63 years ago this month. During the ensuing 63 years Mr. Matheson published 28 novels, the last of which, Generations appeared in 2012. 21 collections of his short stories have also been published over that last 6 decades! If this literary legacy wasn’t awesome enough, he also wrote 22 screen plays during this time. Many of which were based upon his own novels and short stories. Many of these films have reached legendary status such as Duel, The Incredible Shrinking Man, I am Legend (filmed 4 times), The Roger Corman/Vincent Price/Edgar Allan Poe classics; House of Usher and, The Raven , The Night Stalker and Trilogy of Terror. Who can ever forget the Zuni Fetish doll chasing Karen black around that apartment or Bill Shatner freaking out on that airplane as it gets taken apart by that gremlin directly outside his window seat? There was a time when Mr. Matheson ruled Tuesday nights with “ABC’s Movie of the Week”.
I was once asked to describe Mr. Matheson’s stories and I simply (if not completely accurately) said “Ray Bradbury with Teeth”. Mr. Matheson’s stories mostly dealt with horror in modern suburban settings. Very bad things happened in this universe to those who mostly didn’t deserve it. For a younger reading and viewing audience I’d say that you could sum up lots of his work as “Mad Men meets Hell Raiser”
Many of his stories were very hard going for me a youngster. Not because of his straight forward and unadorned writing style, but for the world he presented. It was a world of suburban families, modernity, station wagons and barbeque parties where just beneath the surface or around the next corner lay both natural and supernatural horrors. These stories were dead(ly) serious with no easy resolutions or happy endings. Peter Straub went as far to describe this as “California gothic” This isn’t to say that Mr. Matheson didn’t have a wicked sense of humor. You just had to look at his screen plays to see how funny he could be. Just take a look at “The Night Stalker”, “The Raven” or “Comedy of Terrors”. These are genuinely funny films of the blackest sort of humor. And at other times Mr. Matheson could display a wonderful optimism that literally came at you out of left field. Just look at “The Shrinking Man”. On the surface this is a SF adventure, but as you read it, it becomes a story of the purest kind existential horror. And yet he ends it with the revelation that if infinity can go in both directions of scale then maybe even existence, purpose and intelligence will also continue. With just 131 words Mr. Matheson turns crushing despair into joyous optimism.
“Then he thought: If nature existed on endless levels, so also might intelligence. He might not have to be alone.
Suddenly he began running toward the light.
And, when he’d reached it, he stood in speechless awe looking at the new world with its vivid splashes of vegetation, its scintillate hills, its towering trees, its sky of shifting hues, as though the sunlight were being filtered through moving layers of pastel glass.
It was a wonderland.
There was much to be done and more to be thought about. His brain was teeming with questions and ideas and yes, hope again. There was food to be found, water, clothing, shelter. And, most important, life. Who knew? It might be, it just might be there.
Scott Carey ran into his new world, searching.”
This passage still moves me after all these years.
Even if he is unknown to non-genre fans, Mr. Matheson’s work has become so iconic and culturally all pervasive that he has even been used on the Simpson’s for two of their Halloween shows that I know of. Both “I am Legend” and “Little Girl Lost” have appeared on “Treehouse of Horror” episodes. I consider this to be wonderfully subversive of the main stream. Even folks with no genuine interest in genre fiction or film are still aware of the man’s works if not the man himself. That has to be the final proof that you have left your mark on our culture.
It’s genuine proof of Mr. Matheson’s talent and vision that even stories, novels and screen plays that he produced in the middle of the last century still maintain an edge and a relevancy that speaks to readers today in the second decade of the 21st century. Don’t forget that many of his most famous works were produced during the age of Eisenhower and they are just as powerful today as they were then. That to me, is a genuine timelessness that few other authors can match.
God bless you and thank you Mr. Matheson. Where ever you are.
You have enriched my life, greatly entertained me and lastly; you’ve scared the crap out of many a time.
I drink to your shade.