Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Richard Matheson (1926–2013)

Master of speculative fiction Richard Matheson might not have been the most famous of writers, but he was certainly revered by many noted names (most of all Stephen King). And while the average American might not know his name, for three or more generations, the chances are good that at least one of his many stories has stuck in their memory – or even more likely, that it's haunted them.

Matheson was a superb craftsman, and he thought through the worlds he created, thinking of the consequences of this or that element, tweaking and refining, starting perhaps with a random spark of imagination but then chasing it down, puzzling it out, kneading it, cultivating it, letting it grow. I think what I appreciated most about his work was that he made his characters smart. In some stories, you wind up yelling at the screen or the page because the protagonist does something dumb. Matheson's heroes and heroines weren't immune to panic and fear, but they tended to be very intelligent and proactive about the daunting (or even horrifying) challenges they faced. They acted as we hoped we'd act if we had the wherewithal. And, as I wrote for the late Iain Banks, Matheson's "twists" tended to be excellent and much more than mere gimmicks. Matheson built toward haunting finales and sometimes turned a story on its head, making us look back at events or characters in an entirely different light. Not every working writer aspires to such pinnacles, and even for those that do, it's one thing to aspire, and another thing to achieve it. (And it's still another thing to achieve it so often.)

Some personal favorites, in mostly chronological order:

"Born of Man and Woman" (1950): One of Matheson's most famous and chilling short stories, bound to make you scared to go down into the basement.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957): It's been ages since I've seen this, but it was on television all the time when I was a kid. The tiny hero being tormented by a cat – and later a spider – made for tense viewing.

"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (1963): I first saw the version in The Twilight Zone film, but both it and the TV version are highly memorable. Matheson wasn't entirely happy with either version (and he gives good reasons), but the core of his story shined through, and he spooked many an air traveler's imagination.

Duel (1971): One of the greatest TV movies ever made, this was Steven Spielberg's first feature. It's skillfully directed, but immensely helped by Matheson's chilling premise and taut plotting, as an average man (Dennis Weaver) driving cross-country finds himself stalked by a murderous trucker whose face he can't see and motive he can't fathom. It's particularly scary because we can imagine it happening in real life; Matheson sells us on this.

The Night Stalker (1972): The TV movie that spawned the great but regrettably short-lived TV series. Matheson adapted Jeffrey Grant Rice's novel. It won't give away much to say it's the tale of a vampire in modern times (circa 1972). What I always liked about this is its believability. Given the premise, everything proceeds as it should. The medical examiner reacts with puzzlement to the victims as he would. The cops investigate the mysterious killer, and are dumbfounded by their findings. None of them believe in vampires, of course. But intrepid reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is more open-minded… and while he might be pursuing one hell of a scoop, he's also putting his life at risk.

I Am Legend (1954): Four movie adaptations and counting. This is probably Matheson's most famous tale, and rightly so. Countless post-apocalpytic stories have used it as inspiration or flat-out ripped it off, but no one has done it quite like Matheson himself. Who can forget the image of protagonist Richard Neville's neighbor Ben Cortman standing on his roof, or not imagine Cortman's voice calling to Neville in the night? Who can forget the intense, desperate loneliness Neville feels? Who can forget that killer ending? The bulk of the story is memorable and haunting enough, but oh, that ending. In the course of two to three pages, Matheson manages not only to flip the entire story, making us seeing it all in a completely new way, but flip the entire friggin' genre. If you haven't ever read it and don't know the ending, buy it or check it out from the library. You'll see why Richard Matheson earned his reputation as a true master.

Rob Vaux sums it up nicely in his memoriam:

The late Richard Matheson isn’t a household word like many of the writers and filmmakers he inspired. Science fiction fans always perk up at his name, but run-of-the-mill folks don’t recognize him like they do, say, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, Rod Serling or George A. Romero. And yet all four of those gentlemen owe a considerable debt to him. His legacy extends beyond the dozens of novels, short stories and screenplays he penned to reach into the very fundaments of genre storytelling. This was the man without whom Serling might not have unlocked that door with the key of imagination. The man who inspired Romero to take a stab at the whole zombie thing. The man whose battle between hapless driver and crazy trucker launched the career of Spielberg. The man who King once cited as the biggest influence of his career. The man who showed us what life was like if the vampires won, how scary a house cat can be when you’re six inches tall, what dying of a broken heart truly looks like and – beyond the shadow of all possible doubt – that there was some thing on the wing of that goddamn plane.

Read the rest. Also:

Rob Vaux: "10 Best Richard Matheson Movie and TV Moments."

Stephen King's tribute.

Here's an excerpt of a much longer set of interviews with Matheson from the Television Academy Foundation. (There's some great stuff here for fans, even if you only watch the highlights.)

NPR: Obituaries from All Things Considered and The Two-Way.

The Los Angeles Times obituary.

The io9 remembrance.

Shock Till You Drop's remembrance.

Feel free to link any other remembrances in the comments.


aimai said...

Born of Man and Woman sounds a bit like The Pillowman. Did you ever see it? One of the most horrific and thought provoking plays I've ever seen. I wonder if McDonough or whatever the playwrite's name is was influenced by BoMaW?

aimai said...

By the way your capchas are extraorindarily hard to read--at least to me--I barely got in alive to leave this message.

Batocchio said...

I haven't seen or read The Pillowman, although I've seen and/or read a fair amount of McDonagh's other work. The synopsis online sounds intriguing. I wouldn't be surprised if McDonagh was influenced by Matheson, even though the plots are significantly different.

As for the capchas, I have no control over them, alas. I suppose I could disable them and see how bad the spam actually is these days. I sometimes use the refresh button on capchas when trying to comment because, you're right, some are practically illegible. They've become worse this year. (Maybe they could add a setting where you could choose one of three levels of legibility?)