Friday, June 28, 2013

Richard Matheson

Any of you who were around to watch the original Twilight Zone  on its first broadcasts, or ever cracked a book of fantasy and horror fiction, likely grew up with Richard Matheson somewhere in the background.

The prolific genre writer, who died this week at 87, is best known for his novel I Am Legend, made three times into movies, with, at best, modest success. (The best is the 1971 version, The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston, though you’ll smirk at the scenes where the mutant vampires dance about like Woodstock hippies. Pretty corny, even then.)

Matheson wrote hundreds of other novels, short stories, and film and television scripts. I recall Stephen King writing somewhere (probably in his indispensable horror survey, Danse Macabre) that it was Matheson who set traditional horror fiction free from the prison of ancient haunted houses into twentieth-century sunlit suburbs, with the monster crawling out of the sugar bowl sitting in the middle of the kitchen table.

He was one of many major fantasy-horror writers of that era, chief among them Ray Bradbury. He was a proud member of the clique who wrote many of Twilight Zone’s best episodes, which included creator Rod Serling, George Clayton Johnson, and Charles Beaumont. Along with the latter two, Matheson’s work set the tone for horror fiction at the time, more than anyone else, except for Bradbury.

In addition to penning some of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, he was a major influence on Steven Spielberg, not only for writing the director’s first movie, Duel, but also on his other fantasy films, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Poltergeist. All three are set in the suburban world that Matheson often wrote about and Spielberg grew up in.

My favorite Twilight Zone episode remains Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. I remember scurrying from the room where I was watching it, all alone, one weekend night, in a house in the middle of Nowhere, Texas. It’s still pretty scary.

(Here, I will cheerfully stoke the wrath of the Internet by saying that’s a nice bit of acting there by William Shatner.)

George Miller’s steroidal remake for The Twilight Zone: The Movie, upped the special effects and hysteria level, but wasn’t as creepy or scary. Lithgow is a superior actor to Shatner, but the choice to play the character as sweaty shivering loony from the first shot seems a mistake. The drama was not allowed to build and so remained at the same level and so the segment went by in a flat buzz. The face at the window in the original, costumy though it may be, is still more memorable for its avid grotesquerie.

My favorite of Matheson’s novels was The Shrinking Man, which I found in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, paperback store just after I saw the film on late-night TV. It remains a swell metaphor for the rise of middle-class America and the shrinking of the individual. But mostly I like it because any work featuring a giant spider scrabbling after a guy in a dark cellar always marches down my spine, as well. (The 1957 film version is still good but seems primitive now and would be worth a quality remake, certainly in this era of the shrinking middle class. Anyone know an independent producer? My word processor’s all fired up!)

My favorite of his hundreds of short stories is Long Distance Call, a terrific mood piece about a lonely old lady on a violent stormy night and the empty silence at the other end of the phone. It ends with one of the best closing lines ever.

Matheson’s skill with narrative and atmosphere delighted me more than his metaphysics. For me, his most valuable contribution, one that remains modern horror fiction’s most telling contribution, is that the faith that our world is always progressing toward safety and sanity is an illusion, no matter how many lights we turn on at night, no matter how bright the sun, blue the sky, or well trimmed the front lawn. The world under our feet is always trembling; the air around us is only a fragile shell that can crack open at any second.

And then comes . . . .

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has just completed BUTCHERTOWN , a 1920s gangster shoot-'em-up. He can be “friended” on Facebook and tweeted at on Twitter. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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