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The Legacy of Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson

Author Richard Matheson passed away on June 23, 2013, at the age of 87.  His death was announced by his daughter, Ali, and writer John Shirley posted her brief statement on his Facebook page:

My beloved father passed away yesterday at home surrounded by the people and things he loved … he was funny, brilliant, loving, generous, kind, creative, and the most wonderful father ever … I miss you and love you forever Pop and I know you are now happy and healthy in beautiful place full of love and joy you always knew was there…

Richard Matheson was a brilliant writer, a giant in the field of speculative fiction. His influence was and is enormous. He was born on February 20, 1926 in New Jersey and raised in Brooklyn. He started writing fiction at the age of eight. He graduated Brooklyn Technical High School in 1943 and entered the Army, seeing action during World War II. In 1949, he earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and moved to California in 1951.

Matheson published his first fiction, Born of Man and Woman, in 1950. During the next ten years he produced seven novels and scores more short stories. But after his marriage in 1952, and the birth of his children, Matheson needed to support a family. He tried writing scripts and initially was rejected. But the studios came to him after his novel The Shrinking Man was published in 1956. Matheson bargained his way into writing the screenplay for the adaptation,  The Incredible Shrinking Man, and went on to become one of the most prolific, significant, and influential screenwriters in the genres of science fiction, horror, fantasy, and suspense.

Matheson was a member of the Southern California School of Writers  which included colleagues and friends Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson and William F. Nolan (Logan’s Run). His importance to the history of speculative and genre fiction is immense. In 2002, Stephen King wrote in his introduction for a collection of Richard Matheson’s short stories Nightmare at 20,000 Feet:

In the early 1950s, when Weird Tales was dying its slow death and Robert Bloch, horror’s greatest writer at the time, had turned to psychological tales (and at this same time Fritz Leiber, easily Bloch’s equal, had fallen oddly silent for a time) and the genre was languishing in the horse latitudes, Richard Matheson came like a bolt of pure ozone lightning. He single-handedly regenerated a stagnant genre, rejecting the conventions of  the pulps which were already dying, incorporating sexual impulses and images into his work as Theodore Sturgeon had already begun to do in his science fiction, and writing a series of gut-bucket short stories that were like shots of white lightning.

His influence on several generations of writers, directors, and artists has been attested to, time and time again. Director George Romero made no secret that he directly lifted the plot of Night of the Living Dead from Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. Stephen Spielberg was given his first major directing job on the film Duel, with a script by Matheson adapted from one of his own short stories. Spielberg reacted to Matheson’s death with the statement:

Richard Matheson’s ironic and iconic imagination created seminal science-fiction    stories and gave me my first break when he wrote the short story and screenplay  for ‘Duel.’

Stephen King has repeatedly cited Matheson as the greatest influence on him as a writer, and he posted a statement on June 25, 2013 that reads in part:

We’ve lost one of the giants of the fantasy and horror genres. From THE BEARDLES WARRIORS, his brilliant (and largely unread) World War II novel, to THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and all the wonderful TWILIGHT ZONE scripts and stories, Matheson fired the imaginations of three generations of writers. Without his I AM LEGEND, there would have been no NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD; without NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, there would have been no WALKING DEAD, 28 DAYS LATER, or WORLD WAR Z. Matheson wrote the script for Steven Spielberg’s extraordinary film, DUEL, and created one of the most brain-freezingly frightening haunted house novels of the 20th century in HELL HOUSE. He fired my imagination by placing his horrors not in European castles and Lovecraftian universes, but in American scenes I knew and could relate to.


The Incredible Shrinking Man

The Incredible Shrinking Man

Richard Matheson wrote sixteen episodes of the original “Twilight Zone” created and hosted by writer Rod Serling. Matheson’s tales are some of the best and most frightening of the series, including “When the Sky was Opened,” about three astronauts who disappear, one by one, and, “Mute,” about a little girl who is different with amazing powers (broadcast in 1963 before Stan Lee wrote his first X-MEN comic book). “The Invaders” was written by Matheson, staring a mute Agnes Moorehead battling alien intruders in her attic. And he penned three of my favorites: “Nick of Time”–the little devil’s head fortune-telling machine in the restaurant, William Shatner unable to leave until his fortune says he can–and “Night Call,” a completely terrifying, creepy, psychologically perfect ghost story starring British actress Gladys Cooper, and finally one of the most memorable “Twilight Zone” episodes of all, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” starring William Shatner once again, as the recently discharged mental patient who sees things on the wings of airplanes.

From "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (Twilight Zone)

From “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (Twilight Zone)

Richard Matheson contributed scripts for the television series “The Lawman,” he adapted Edgar Allen Poe for Roger Corman and Vincent Price (House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Raven). For Hammer Films he wrote the script for The Devil Rides Out, , and for Independent Films he and Charles Beaumont adapted Fritz Leiber’s novel Burn Witch, Burn. He was the creator of one of my favorite television shows when I was young, “The Night Stalker”; he wrote the two movies on which the subsequent series “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” was based. He wrote the Star Trek: TOS episode, “The Enemy Within,” giving William Shatner some acting red-meat in a story about a Capt. Kirk who is split into two extreme versions, one passive and weak, the other aggressive and cruel.

His novels include, Someone is Bleeding (1953), I Am Legend (1954), The Shrinking Man (1956), A Stir of Echoes (1958), Hell House (1971), Bid Time Return (1975), What Dreams May Come (1978), and many others including Westerns, Mysteries, Suspense, and the World War II novel The Beardless Warriors.

Matheson’s own novels that have been turned into films, usually based on his own scripts, include the aforementioned The Shrinking Man (The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957), and I Am Legend (The Last Man on Earth, 1964; The Omega Man, 1971; and I Am Legend, 2007). Bid Time Return became the beautiful film with Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve called Somewhere In Time, 1980. Movie adaptations were also made of A Stir of Echoes (Stir of Echoes, 1999) and What Dreams May Come, 1998.

Somewhere in Time

Somewhere in Time

From The Last Man on Earth (starring Vincent Price) the first adaptation of I Am Legend

From The Last Man on Earth (starring Vincent Price) the first adaptation of I Am Legend


From I Am Legend 2007, starring Will Smith

From I Am Legend 2007, starring Will Smith

In 1984 Matheson won the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement , and was honored with a Stoker Life Achievement award in 1991. He was named a World Horror Grandmaster in 1991, and an International Horror Guild Living Legend in 2000.  In 2010 he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

Richard Matheson was scheduled to receive the Visionary Award at the Academy of Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Films’ Saturn Awards on Wednesday, June 26th. The award was instead presented posthumously, and the entire ceremony was dedicated to him.

While Mr. Matheson has passed from this earth, his stories and novels will abide, to be enjoyed by generations to come.


About Rivka Jacobs (4 Articles)
Rivka Jacobs is an unemployed counselor and registered nurse who spends most of her time taking care of her cats or writing fiction. When she's not doing either of those things, she reads comic books, watches geeky and science shows on television, and spends too much time on Internet message boards. Rivka has published several science fiction and horror stories and is an active member of the SFWA, and an affiliate member of the HWA.

2 Comments on The Legacy of Richard Matheson

  1. I had no idea, until I bought the book of short stories that had I Am Legend, that he’d written the story upon which one of my favorite horror movies was based. Have you ever seen Trilogy of Terror with Karen Black? One of the scary short films in that was about a woman locked in her apartment with a possessed African doll. Matheson wrote that story. Good stuff!

  2. Absolute genius. I have no doubt that the gifts he gave the world will continue on for generations both directly and indirectly through the other artists he inspires.

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