“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
It’s October, and here at Biff Bam Pop! that means a month-long celebration of the macabre in pop-culture. Last time, Dale sweet-talked the incomparable Kris Woofter into guest-writing, and if you missed his look into why we love the horror genre so much – and his incredible list of must-see horror films – you should go check it out. Having to follow that is enough to spark dark visions of authorial revenge on those who put me in this position… but I diegress (yes, even when I’m not writing about comic books, I wind up channeling EC Comics!). So I thought that this week I would focus on a man who is one of the most influential creators in American horror, yet who is sometimes not quite as well-known as he should be. He’s one of my absolute favorites, and likely one of yours too, though you may not know it:
No, not Shatner, but the man who wrote this classic Twilight Zone episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet:” Richard Matheson. Born in 1927, Matheson become one of the most prolific writers of SF-Horror in the United States, particularly when it came to the early decades of national television. Besides “Nightmare…”, Matheson wrote fifteen other Twilight Zone episodes, including “A World of His Own” (1960), “The Invaders” (1961), “Once Upon A Time” (1961), and “Death Ship” (1963). Each is a Ten Percent episode in a series that is itself part of the Ten Percent, and reveals Matheson’s mastery of the “What If?” story. What if aliens with superior technology invaded Earth, but were only a few inches tall? What if a writer could change the world around him, add and delete houses, cars, even people, and change the personalities of those around him, simply by dictating into a special Dictaphone? What if a hapless Janitor tried on his genius boss’ time helmet and found himself transported from 1890 to 1962? These were the kind of things that kept Richard Matheson up and night, and at his typewriter.
Besides The Twilight Zone, Matheson also wrote for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Have Gun Will Travel, Combat!, and even for Shatner again in the original Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within” (1966). He also wrote the teleplay for The Night Stalker would return to write for Rod Sterling again for Night Gallery (1972), as well as for the Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), and the reboot of the Twilight Zone (1985 – 1989), as well as three episodes of the 1980 mini-series The Martian Chronicles, based upon the book by Ray Bradbury. For 58 years. Matheson’s wringing formed an important part of the superstructure of American television, particularly when it came to the macabre. Even after his death in 2013, Matheson’s work continues to inspire, and to be remade.
Despite having been such a prolific part of the television landscape, Matheson is perhaps best known for the films which were adapted from his stories and novels, often by his own hand. Indeed, Steven Spielberg’s first feature film, Duel (1971), was scripted by Matheson and based upon one of his own short stories. He also wrote the screenplays for the Poe inspired films House of Usher (1960), Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and Tales of Terror (1962), as well as the classic cult camp film Die! Die! My Darling! (1965). Undoubtedly, though, the two proprieties for which Matheson is best known are the novels I Am Legend and Hell House, both of which have been adapted for the screen multiple times. I Am Legend made its silver screen debut as The Last Man on Earth (1964), starring Vincent Price, and Matheson was part of the team who wrote the screenplay. The story was reinvented in 1971 as The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, and again as I Am Legend starring Will Smith in 2007. Most recently, a reboot of I Am Legend is currently in development, although no release date has yet been announced. Hell House was transformed for the screen by Matheson himself in 1973 as The Legend of Hell House, starring Roddy McDowell.
Matheson had a mastery of creepy atmospherics, but also a finely tuned sense of humanity, and the often very strange ways in which we react to even the most horrific circumstances. Even the end of the world, after a time, fails to impress:
After a while, though, even the deepest sorrow faltered, even the most penetrating despair lost its scalpel edge.
Yet, for Matheson the human heart is capable of enormous resilience, even in “a world of monotonous horror”:
But it was hard to keep his hands still. He could almost feel them twitching emphatically with his strong desire to reach out and stroke the dog’s head. He had such a terrible yearning to love something again, and the dog was such a beautiful ugly dog.
According to Stephen King, “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] was a seminal figure in the horror and fantasy genres, as important in his way as Poe or Lovecraft. 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. ‘I want to do that,’ I thought. ‘I must do that.’ Matheson showed the way.”
Perhaps most impressive is the fact that reading a Richard Matheson novel or story, or watching one of the TV episodes or films he scripted today brings on no real sense of the tale feeling dated. Matheson reaches beyond the ephemera of the moment to grasp the things that survive, no matter how many lights you turn on, how many technological advances we make, how rational we become. The things that skitter in our hindbrains and tell us that the shadow moving at the edge of our peripheral vision is a GODDAMN PREDATOR!!! not a leaf blowing about in a cold, fall wind. Matheson had the incredible talent of finding, and putting into words, the things that always scare us: helplessness, isolation, loneliness, and terror in the knowledge that no matter what we do, at the end of the line lies death – inevitable and implacable. Don’t believe me? That’s okay, but with the holidays coming up, a lot of us will be travelling here and there to be with loved ones, and though we now travel at 35 – 40,000 feet instead of twenty, when you find yourself on that redeye flight heading towards or coming from some family feast, when the clouds go black and the wing is only occasionally lit by distant lighting flashes, and the turbulence is making your stomach leap into your throat, ask yourself this:
What if there really is something on the wing?
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.