Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Richard Matheson, RIP

Richard Matheson, the author best know for his books I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man, as well as numerous Twilight Zone episodes, has passed away. Even if you didn't know him from those, chances are you were familiar with his work in some way, as his body of work spanned decades. I know before I even knew of him, I was already a fan thanks to his Twilight Zone work.

In fact, I didn't even know who he was until I was watching the Horror Awards on Channel 9 in the 90s and George A. Romero mentioned in an interview that his classic Night of the Living Dead was based I Am Legend. As a budding zombie fan, I was of course obligated to seek the book out to see how exactly it was inspired. Fortunately, the Science Fiction Book Club was offering it as a hardcover not long after so I was able to get my grubby little hands on a copy.

It would be a lie to say I was immediately blown away by it. That would come a few rereads later, when I was a couple years older and understood some of the themes in the novel more. I, like Akiva Goldsman, missed the point of the whole novel, not realizing that the monster the entire time was himself. I did enjoy it, however, and was reminded of a movie I had seen with Vincent Price called The Last Man on Earth. That was for very good reason, as that movie too was based on the novel, though more closely than NOTLD. At that point, I wanted to find out more about the man and his works.

As I did some research in magazines and other books (the was before the internet, mind you), I found another adaptation of I Am Legend called The Omega Man, starring the NRA's own Charlton Heston. I rented it and thought it was pretty groovy, though a bit mired in its 70s sensibilities but it was a fun ride so I didn't mind. I also discovered that he wrote Somewhere in Time, a movie with Christopher Reeve that I loved and scared the shit out of me with his "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet". I still check the wing whenever I get on a plane. Or just pull the shade down completely so I don't risk the anger of any gremlins. Regardless of that, I thought the man was a genius. I needed to read more.

So it was off to the used bookstores I went. I found short story collections, old paperbacks of I Am Legend and more. I found Duel, which was turned into a movie by Steven Spielberg that I then rented. I found The Shrinking Man and had to check that flick out again. I discovered the beautiful and eerie A Stir of Echoes (a personal favorite of mine well before the movie), about one man who suddenly had full use of his mind thanks to a hypnotist's trick. It was amazing how one book started an obsession with an author, but that's how it usually starts, isn't it?

What attracted me to his work? I think it was the simplicity of the stories and depth of the characters. Some of the most memorable ones of his can be reduced to a line, but it's the brilliance of the writing that makes the tales shine. A lesser writer might take a tale of one man versus legions of the undead and make it a pulpy, lurid tale. Matheson works the prose deftly and spins a tale of a man obsessed, trying to live his lonely life with a mission of curing the plague and ridding the world of vampires with science. Indeed, the vampires in his novel are scientific creations, rather than the mystical bloodsuckers of yore. And it is that mastery of the art that we will all miss.

Thanks to being immersed in his work, I consider Richard Matheson to be one of the chief influences on my own work as I strive to emulate a much richer talent than my own. He will be missed greatly, but his memory will live on in the works of art his delivered to us all while he was alive.

Rest in peace.

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