On June 23rd, Richard Matheson passed away at the age of 87. I didn’t find out until two days later, on the 25th, and I’ve been thinking about Matheson and his work ever since.
I found it a bit odd that I didn’t hear anything about his death on Facebook or other haunts of mine on the Internet, which is part of the reason I’ve chosen to write about Matheson today, although I’m not under the illusion that people didn’t know of him or his work.
I’ll admit upfront that I’m a recent fan of Matheson. I’ve seen most episodes of The Twilight Zone television show by now thanks to the nearly annual New Year’s Day marathon on the SciFi channel, but it wasn’t until about five or six years ago that I made the connection between some of those classic episodes and the writer. It was around the time the Will Smith version of I Am Legend came out in theaters, I think, that I finally sat down and read any of Matheson’s fiction. I don’t remember now if I started with one of his short story collections or I Am Legend, but it hardly matters. I was hooked right away. From the moment I started reading, I knew I had been missing out on stories from a master of terror.
Now, whenever a friend asks me for a book recommendation, something by Matheson is always near the top of the list. In my opinion, there are not many writers, past or present, who can top his knack for psychological horror. One of my favorite aspects of nearly all his novels and short stories is how he takes regular people and puts them in bizarre situations that are only a few shades removed from reality as we know it. I think that’s something that can be hard to do believably, but Matheson manages to convince me every time. I never doubt that the situations he sets up could happen in a world just slightly different from our own or that one day I might stumble into that world if I’m not careful (just like most of his main characters).
Because I’m a relative newcomer to Matheson’s fiction, and have yet to read most of his work, I feel a little weird calling him an inspiration. But length of interest or amount read is not directly related to influence—it’s the skill that counts, and Matheson had plenty. When I get stuck while writing a horror story or chilling scene in a larger tale, I look to Matheson to figure out how to ramp up the terror while keeping it believable.
When I found out about Matheson’s death, I thought about how it had taken me a couple days to hear about it even though he wrote so many classic episodes of The Twilight Zone. I pick that out of his impressive list of work because I think it’s the one that has the most widespread audience nowadays. It occurred to me that most people would probably know his episodes by name or a brief description but might not realize Matheson wrote them (“The Invaders”, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, and “Little Girl Lost” are just a few examples).
On the 23rd, I happened to be having a conversation with a friend of mine about pop culture appropriation and memory—how we might remember a television show’s theme song but not know the person who wrote the jingle (collectively, I mean—there are of course individuals who would know that kind of information). It was a brief conversation, mostly both of us acknowledging how interesting cultural memory can be in what it remembers and forgets.
I’m not suggesting that’s what has happened or will happen to Matheson, but it did make me think about how the writer of television shows and movies is a background player for the most part. Obviously people interested in writing will pay attention when the credits roll, but even then sometimes the connections aren’t made until years later (or at all). Yet the writer is a crucial part; everything rests on his or her ability to tell a story. And few people are as good at that as Richard Matheson.
Everything he has written that I’ve read or watched still evokes terror even today; his imagination and storytelling transcend time periods and cultural fads. It’s too bad we’ll no longer be able to enjoy new work from him, but luckily he left behind a plethora of stellar stories and television episodes to keep us awake at night.
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