The annual obituary montage at the Academy Awards included lot of familiar faces and several high wattage stars, foremost among them, perhaps, Peter O’Toole and Philip Seymour Hoffman. But one name that was probably unfamiliar to most viewers brought me fond, creepy, weird memories.
Richard Matheson died last June at 87. He wasn’t an actor but rather a novelist, short story and screenwriter. The name may not ring a bell, but how about “I Am Legend” aka “The Omega Man,” “Duel,” “Hell House,” “The Night Stalker, “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” ”Stir of Echoes,” “Somewhere in Time,” and “What Dreams May Come?”
Matheson did his most famous work from the 1950s through the 1970s and was part of a group of California writers many of whom served in World War II, worked briefly in the state’s many defense and tech companies, the precursors of silicon valley, and wrote science fiction, fantasy and horror stories.
Unlike Golden Age sci-fi writers like Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke, these guys cared less about the science than the uncanny, the odd and the funny. Like others of their generation, including Vonnegut and Heller, they found their audience less among their contemporaries than among their kids, the boomer generation of TV watchers.
Matheson’s single most influential work is probably “I Am Legend,” filmed multiple times starring Vincent Price, Charlton Heston and Will Smith. There has been a strange plague and our protagonist may be the last man on earth. Everyone else has been transformed into nocturnal, bloodthirsty creatures which behave a lot like the vampires of legend. He hides by night and kills them by day.
Stephen King in a tribute at the time of Matheson’s death said Matheson revivified creepy old tropes by setting them not in “European castles…but in American scenes I knew and could relate to.” King also noted that without “I Am Legend” “there would have been no “Night of the Living Dead”…“Walking Dead,” “28 Days” or “World War Z.”
But there was more to Matheson’s effects than merely making spookiness contemporary. In his work, the tale often depends for its effect on a sly O. Henry twist, an unexpected turning of the premise upside down, no more so than in “Legend.” It ends with the hero captured by the vampires and the realization that they have become the norm and he is regarded as we might a vampire, a terrifying presence who tracks them down as they sleep in order to kill them. Black is white and white is black and the reader is suddenly disoriented.
No wonder Matheson found a place on “The Twilight Zone’ where he, Charles Beaumont and creator Rod Serling wrote the lion’s share of over 100 episodes. Matheson accounted for almost 20 and also seems to have had a place in the writers’ room editing the work of others. His most famous episodes include the iconic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” in which an airline passenger sees a strange creature on the wing tearing the airplane to pieces – fear of flying made flesh. An episode in which the owner of a broken boxing robot dresses up as a mechanical man in order to win a purse so he can repair the robot became the recent “Real Steel.” “Third from the Sun” and “The Invaders” also turn the tables on the audience by revealing the bad guys are the good guys or the aliens are us. This figures in a man who, according to his son, kept a sign above his desk saying, “That which you think becomes your world.”
Thus, his work often combined suspense with ironic comedy or a kind of surreal or Escher universe in which conventional wisdom is turned on its head. It often also mocked the conventions of the form. In “The Night Stalker” the crusading reporter is on the trail of a serial killer, but the reporter is so disreputable and hungry for a byline that even his editor doesn’t believe him when the killer turns out to be a vampire.
A touch of the surreal also figures in “Duel,” the first film ever directed by Spielberg. In it, a man driving on a bucolic back road is overtaken by a huge fire-breathing semi truck that tries to kill him. We never see more of the driver than a hairy forearm sticking out the window. The film proceeds at a breakneck pace as the driver repeatedly loses the truck only to have it reappear ominously in his rearview mirror for another attempt to destroy him. It’s a short step from “Duel” to “Jaws.” All it lacks is the thrumming signature music every time the machine hoves into view.
No wonder he was beloved by the generation of Spielberg and King and Lucas. Sunny, suburban, Cold War America was awash in terror. Machines were not our friends. Science was suspect. Heroes could turn out to be bad guys and vampires their sympathetic victims. Moral ambiguity was the order of the day as in “The Twilight Zone” episode entitled “Button, Button” in which a struggling husband and wife are offered a chance to receive millions if they push a button on a box that will cause someone they don’t know to drop over dead. Best of all, his work was often scary and funny at the same time. Matheson did not practice high art, but his work was pop art of a high order, and few of those he inspired have done it better.