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Tabula Rasa

Richard Matheson

Father and Son

by David Carroll

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#5, 1995

Richard Matheson is one of those worrisome people who always confuse advocates of little boxes labelled with genres and mediums. Indeed he's actively opposed to such ideas. 'Do anything you can to destroy genres' he says. 'A good story is a good story' [124]. And this man knows what he's talking about, and has written some good stories in his time.

He was born February 20th, 1926 in New Jersey, started writing at the age of eight (learning a love of fantasy and fairy tales, starting with Pinocchio in Africa), educated in journalism in New York and Missouri and saw action during World War II.

It was in 1950 though, that he first was noticed as an upcoming writer-to-watch, starting with the short story Born of Man and Woman -- a creepy little tale told from the point of view of an abused child (a precursor to the more polished and highly evocative Dress of White Silk of the following year). It was a successful decade for him, artistically speaking, one that produced seven novels and a large collection of short stories for various magazines, including the soon to be deceased Weird Tales and a lot of the new Science Fiction 'zines that were growing in popularity after the War, most notably The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (nice catchy title, that one). But print never proved a financially rewarding medium for him (his first anthology Born of Man and Woman was a bit of a disaster, really, even before the flood and subsequent fire) and, describing himself as a visual writer, seeing his short stories or novels on little screens in his mind, it seemed natural for him to enter the cinematic world. Natural to him anyway, if not necessarily to anyone already there.

After devising a number of scripts for various shows, and getting nowhere with them, Hollywood finally approached him, asking for rights to his novel The Shrinking Man. Seizing the chance he negotiated the chance to write the screenplay, and he was in. Various things lead to another, and he worked with and along side a lot of the big names in the business, Jack Arnold, Roger Corman, Hammer and AIP. He even wrote Jaws 3D (and not a bad little movie it is, really, certainly the best 3D flick I've laid eyes upon). Still not exhausted of possibilities he moved onto television, writing the screenplay for the first break of a certain Steven Spielberg, then going on to create the top-rating telemovie up to that time The Night Stalker, along with its sequel The Night Strangler. It almost seems superfluous to mention he scripted some of the best regarded episodes of The Twilight Zone -- and of course there were more novels, more short stories and he has also written for the stage.

But, in this most distinguished career, what exactly was he writing? He has been claimed by various genres as their own, fantasy or science fiction or horror in turn. He has certainly had success with straight literature, most notably his hard-hitting war novel The Beardless Warriors in 1960 and his telemovie The Morning After in 1974, a look at alcoholism that ended up being used by a number of medical schools. And while his work in the timeless setting of the Edgar Allen Poe story has gained him great esteem, such things are not his speciality (the first of the Poe movies was the 1961 House of Usher for Roger Corman, starring Vincent Price, which became a huge hit -- for a summer it put on a double bill with Psycho -- and thus they did more of them. Matheson claims he isn't even a fan of Poe, though he enjoys the poems, and the series had degenerated to the level of slapstick in The Raven (1963) -- though it's worth it for Price reading the actual poem). Each of the claims on him by the three cousins have a legitimate basis, but Matheson's best work, and most lasting influence, has been in the field of the modern-day wonders, all the eccentricities and terrors of our own environment.

It is a significant step -- he was inheriting the legacy of the American horrors of Lovecraft and the Weird Tales generation, and though he had two stories in that distinguished publication it was not where he was most at home. Along with Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers in 1955, and Shirley Jackson and Ray Bradbury (though the best of each's novels were still a number of years away), he was redefining the horror genre into a more immediate concern.

(Not that Matheson is necessarily happy with the term horror itself -- seeing it in terms of A Nightmare on Elm St and Friday the Thirteenth (which seems genre-prejudiced in itself). But we shall see.)

Take, for example, Duel, broadcast in 1971. It was his first script for the small screen and Steven Spielberg's first mainstream directing assignment (Jaws was four years later, but his motion picture debut was in the long-forgotten chase comedy The Sugarland Express in 1974). The screenplay concerns a man travelling home by car, only to find himself being threatened by a dirty and hulking truck, the driver of which is never properly seen. Growing steadily more paranoid and desperate, the conflict escalates until it is literately a duel to the death.

We can see immediately this idea of the everyday being used for horrific intent. I have heard a number of comments about this movie being about the conflict between man and machine (an argument certainly strengthened by the fact the protagonist's surname is Mann), but it more properly seems a look at conflict between man and man -- and the abstractions used in such conflicts. Just as we learn early on that our hero has had to contend with the harassment of his wife by a rival, so we learn of the other 'tools' used in war. It is an effective screenplay (based upon an incident when Matheson was tailgated by a huge truck along a stretch of deserted highway in 1963 -- and if anything is the mark of a committed writer, the fact that he was writing notes whilst being chased by the truck (a friend, Jerry Sohl, was driving) is it) that is accurately and well realised onto screen. Strangely enough, it also sets the trend of subsequent Spielberg movies, up to and including Schindler's List, the struggle of a single individual fighting some abstract or inhuman force.

Other examples of this author's use of the familiar and everyday abound, though he is no stranger to the supernatural or inexplicable. In The Night Stalker the hero, Carl Kolchak, a world weary reporter, successfully hunts down a vampire terrorising LA. But his superiors have no use for such monsters and he is fired, discredited, run out of town, forced to resort to tired audio diary's in dirty hotels. (As we saw in issue 3, the fact that out hero still expects to be published by the end of the interesting but inferior sequel -- not to mention comes back for twenty episodes of a TV show -- just demonstrates the tenuous logic resulting when art meets finance). Matheson has provided two effective examples of a woman fighting for her life against a doll (with whatever rationalisation), the episode The Invaders of The Twilight Zone (1961), featuring Agnes Moorehead and no dialogue, and the last segment in the effective Trilogy of Terror (1974). Speaking of the Zone he also wrote the famous episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, set in a modern airplane. One of his best regarded screenplays, Burn, Witch Burn (Sidney Hayers, 1961, co-written with Charles Beaumont from a Fritz Leiber novel) sees a woman drawn to witchcraft to advance the career of her schoolteacher husband. His famous 1951 short story Blood Son involves a young boy obsessed with vampirism gleaned from horror literature, put upon by his family and community until he all but commits suicide in his quest for acceptance (and his vampire prince indeed arrives, or does he?)

His most overtly horrific novel is 1971's Hell House, but the best example of his style and influence are two of the novels of the 1950s, The Shrinking Man and, in particular, I am Legend. Both are pseudo-science fiction but have quite different concerns than ordinary SF and, further, the latter gets my vote as the first great modern horror novel.

It concerns one Robert Neville, the only remaining human in a world of vampires, barricading himself by night and searching for some answer to his dilemma by day -- be it the physical threat of those around him, or simple loneliness. And he has another problem as well, because the undead that surround him are no passive menace, but one that becomes more and more self-organised, self-aware. Robert Neville must try to understand not only what his continued defence means to himself, but what it means to the growing society around him.

Vampires are not treated as just a scary monster, but a phenomena that can be studied, and the scientific basis for them in this novel is a precursor to similar work in Whitley Strieber's The Hunger (1981) and Dan Simmon's Children of the Night (1992). Indeed the very notion of vampires as rational beings was a breakthrough, leading up to the modern craze (recently David Schow called vampires the Star Trek of horror, a wonderful description). Of more direct influence, both Stephen King and George Romero have cited this novel as a major inspiration for the way they crafted their own public nightmares.

The man's own body of work has been a remarkable and significant achievement, his influence even more so. But Richard Matheson has contributed to another success story: Richard Christian Matheson, eldest son of Richard Snr.

It is possibly unfair to discuss Richard Jnr's work in context of his father's, but it is certainly a natural pairing. The younger man has already shown a variety of talents, most notably in the field of television as a writer and producer, where he has over five hundred episodes from various shows to his credit. He has also scripted a number of motion pictures, most notably sharing the work on the two Bill and Ted movies, under the name Chris Matheson [correction: this is actually another of the original's sons]. Of more interest to us, his literature has a definite and hardcore horrific bent, most notably his very short stories which earned him a place in Splatterpunks: Extreme Horror. These are collected in Scars and other Distinguishing Marks (1987 -- best story being Mobius, and The Good Always Come Back was an incredible example of a more sombre mood), and his first novel Created By (1993) is receiving some good reviews. The second, Leading Man, is coming. Father and son have even written some successful collaborations.

Whether Richard Christian Matheson will achieve the same status as his father is yet to be seen (and, after all, a successful career may be more desirable than any competitive goal), but he certainly has an inspiring and weighty legacy behind him.


[151] Richard Matheson: He is Legend, Mark Rathbun and Graeme Flanagan, California, 1984. An excellent and detailed fan-written listing of Matheson's work, with some very useful essays thrown in.

[125] Dark Dreamers: Conversations with the Masters of Horror, Stanley Wiater, Avon Books, New York, 1990. A really good and, dare I say, inspirational series of interviews with various writers. Most of the entries seemed to have turned up in FEAR magazine at one time or another.

[126] Richard Matheson: Master of Fantasy, Paul M Sammon, in Fangoria #2, O'Quinn studios, New York, October 1979.

[127] Contemporary Authors, Francis C Loches (ed), Gale Research Company, Detroit, 1981.

[18] Danse Macabre: The Anatomy of Horror, Stephen King, Futura, London, 1981.

[47] The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, Jack Sullivan (ed), Viking Penguin Inc, New York, 1986.

* Little Deaths, edited by Ellen Datlow, Millennium, London, 1994. Full review next issue.


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