You may not know the name Richard Matheson. But if you've encountered any stories about zombies or vampires or haunted houses—and who hasn't these days?—you’ve felt his influence at work. Before Twilight, there was Matheson. Before The Exorcist, there was Matheson. Before World War Z, there was Matheson. Before Stephen King, there was Matheson.
He also dealt with, among other tasty subjects, extrasensory perception, time travel, outer space, ghosts and (my personal favorite) premature burial. If it howls in the dark or creeps in the night, Matheson has his finger- prints on it. In other words, few authors since Edgar Allan Poe and H.G. Wells have discovered more ways to scare and enchant an audience.
Richard Matheson never enjoyed much name recognition during the course of his 87 years. Nor does he get mentioned when literati make lists of the great West Coast writers of the last half-century. But almost everybody knows his stories. They have probably seen one of the three film versions of his book I Am Legend—picked as the best vampire story of the century by the Horror Writers Association—or the famous zombie film it inspired, Night of the Living Dead. Or they saw one of the many Twilight Zone episodes he wrote, most notably "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," featuring a young William Shatner and an ugly gremlin jumping on the wing of a passenger plane. Or they have encountered "The Enemy Within," a script he wrote for a slightly older Shatner on Star Trek. Or they saw Steven Spielberg's film of Matheson’s screen- play Duel, or one of the many other adaptations of his tales.
My personal introduction to Richard Matheson came around the age of ten, when I read his novel The Shrinking Man. I'm amazed at how much I remember from this book so many years later. I even still recall the exact rate of the hero's shrinkage—one-seventh of an inch per day. And I must have had nightmares for many months over the tiny protagonist's battle with a comparatively enormous spider, with only a sewing needle for self-protection. The scene is classic Matheson, ostensibly ludicrous in conception, but gut-wrenchingly scary in execution. Just like that goofy gremlin jumping on the wing of the plane. You laugh, but only until the lights go out. And if you could count the cumulative number of nightmares inspired by different writers, Matheson has to be in contention for the top spot.
But don’t just take the word of my 10-year-old younger self. Consult the experts, namely the other authors who have staked their reputations on writing nightmare-inspiring horror stories. Stephen King, who at last count has sold some 350 millions books, has declared: "Without Richard Matheson, I wouldn't be around." Anne Rice has cited him as a major influence. So has Neil Gaiman. But even more common are the many writers who have 'borrowed' Matheson's ideas and plots for their own successful projects without ever crediting him. If you know what to look for, you will find his influence almost everywhere in our current pop culture. When the other genre writers got together to write a tribute book a few years back, they aptly entitled it He is Legend. And he is, albeit only in certain circles. You won’t find Matheson's books taught on college campuses or praised by trendy French literary critics, but the authors and screenplay writers who count their fans in the tens of millions know who he is, and have learned from his example.
My most recent recounter with Matheson came via his novel Hell House, which Stephen King has aptly praised as "the scariest haunted house novel ever written." In an eerie coincidence, I was reading the closing pages of this book on the very day that Matheson died. And I found that my perceptions of Matheson as an adult reader of literary fiction aren't that much different from my reactions as a young connoisseur of scary pulp fiction tales and sci-fi. Matheson is a master of plot and pacing, mood and suspense. He can spin a yarn, as the saying goes. He knows when to go 'old school'—and what could possibly be more 'old school' than a ghost story?—but also when to add a new, post-atomic twist to the proceedings. He always had one foot in the ancient world of myth and legend, and another in the most contemporary elements of the modern day, straight from the morning newspaper. This odd mixture allowed him to revitalize the various genre categories he addressed during his career, even if he were following in the footsteps of centuries of predecessors.
For the record, Matheson always objected to his status as a 'horror' writer and preferred the term 'terror'—although I'm not sure this is a distinction understood by most of his audience. "To me, horror connotes blood and guts," Matheson has explained, "while terror is a much more subtle art, a matter of stirring up primal fears." Some of Matheson's best work relies on this "subtle art"—for example the now classic movie Duel (originally a made-for- television film directed by 24-year-old Steven Spielberg in his first full-length outing), which extracts maximum suspense and, yes, terror, out of a simple cat-and-mouse game played on the roadways. This encounter between a Peterbilt 281 tanker truck with a psychotic apparently behind the wheel and a red Plymouth driven by a salesman played by Dennis Weaver required no expensive special effects or elaborately choreographed fight scenes. Yet the tension of watching this movie is almost unbearable—largely because, as Matheson (as well as Spielberg) understood, the implication of what 'might' happen is always more spine-tingling than what 'does' happen. In Duel, the possibility of that 'might happen' hovers over almost every scene in the movie.
We can see in such moments that Matheson's truest counterpart is Alfred Hitchcock, the pre- eminent master of suspense by implication. With Hitchcock, this skill may have been instilled by the imposed requirements of cinema censorship during his career, which made blood and gore off limits and forced filmmakers into subtler evocations of violence. Hitchcock fought constantly against the restrictions of the Motion Picture Production Code, and at the end of his life when the rating system was introduced, he took advantage of the new freedoms with his R-rated Frenzy. Yet by that time Hitchcock had learned every trick of creating suspense with the smallest of means. I recall reading that there were only 12 acts of violence in Hitchcock's North by Northwest, but 19 in Disney's The Little Mermaid. As Duel makes clear, Matheson could make do with even fewer. The scariest author of his generation, Matheson could also be one of the most controlled and restrained.
He also knew when to put aside the terror and build stories from kinder, gentler emotions. His time travel novel Bid Time Return (also known as Somewhere in Time) is really a romance novel, anticipating in many ways Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. His life-after-death novel What Dreams May Come is one of the great romantic ghost stories, but with the love angle more than countering the darker themes of the book. And in a strange move,from an author who built his career on strange moves, Matheson even included a complete bibliography of non- fiction works at the back of this novel, shared along with repeated reassurances to his readers that they too could be reunited with their loved ones after they've shaken off their mortal coil.
I sense that Matheson viewed this particular book with special fondness, seeing it as a psychological counterweight to his many other tales of matters macabre. True, several of his other books convey the message that we survive our bodily deaths, although seldom with the upbeat angle applied in What Dreams May Come. But with Matheson now having left us himself, we hardly need to apply metaphysical measures to gauge his after-death survival. His books assure him of that. He will continue to delight, fascinate and—most of all—terrify for many decades to come. As with the zombies and vampires he wrote about, the end may be, in fact, just the start.
Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is currently working on his ninth book, Love Songs: A Secret History, which will be published by Oxford University Press.
This article was published on June 26, 2013
The Scariest of Them All: A Tribute to Richard Matheson