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Friday June 28, 2013

Richard Matheson: An epic storyteller

Richard Matheson inspired many writers with his insatiable appetite for horror stories.

RICHARD Matheson, the prolific American writer of fantasy, horror and science fiction, much of whose work has been adapted for TV and cinema, died on on Sunday, aged 87. Cited by Stephen King as the biggest influence on his own work, Matheson sent shivers down the spines of readers and viewers for decades, with such unusual novels and stories as The Incredible Shrinking Man and the much-filmed I Am Legend.

Matheson was born in Allendale, New Jersey, to Norwegian parents, and brought up in Brooklyn, New York. As a youngster he first set his heart on a musical career, but an avid appetite for fantasy fired his creativity: he was only eight when his stories appeared in a local newspaper, the Brooklyn Eagle. He was transfixed by seeing Dracula at the cinema, and by his teens had the idea for the vampire story I Am Legend.

After he graduated from Brooklyn technical high school in 1943, World War II service intervened. He later described his experiences through the eyes of a common soldier in his novel The Beardless Warriors (1960).

Solitary, bewildered men recur in Matheson’s work, and he developed such trademark characters while working nights as a linotype operator in California. He had moved to the American West Coast after graduating in journalism from the University of Missouri in 1949. He met his future wife, Ruth Ann Woodson, on a beach in Santa Monica; they married in 1952.

A first novel, Hunger And Thirst, went unpublished for several decades. A short story, Born Of Man And Woman (1950), attracted notice and became part of his first story collection, published in 1954, the same year that I Am Legend appeared. In this tale, the last man on Earth is beset by vampires. Partially soothed by whisky, music and the companionship of a dog, he reflects in a library on all the books on its shelves, “the residue of a planet’s intellect, the scrapings of futile minds, the leftovers, the potpourri of artifacts that had no power to save men from perishing”.

It was filmed three times, as The Last Man On Earth (1964), as The Omega Man (1971) and, most recently, with Will Smith, as I Am Legend (2007).

In an even more intense book, The Shrinking Man (1956), Scott Carey is exposed to radiation and chemicals that cause him to grow smaller. He is pursued by a spider that appears bigger and bigger as he dwindles in size. Carey’s terrifying situation was a variation on that era’s preoccupation with man’s identity amid the lonely crowd and threat of the atomic bomb. Carey keeps faith – “a man’s self-estimation was, in the end, a matter of relativity ... he still had his mind, he was still unique” – despite his fear of a spider whose “pulsing egg of a body perched on running legs – an egg whose yolk swam with killing poisons”.

Matheson contributed to Rod Serling’s renowned early 1960s television series The Twilight Zone, whose episodes twist towards ingenious endings. In the famous, much-parodied Nightmare At 20,000 Feet, a salesman, played by William Shatner, recovering from a nervous breakdown, sees in flight a creature “of a wide-pored coarseness” on the wing of the plane.

When he heard news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov 22, 1963, Matheson abandoned a game of golf and was returning home when he was continually tailgated by a truck. This inspired a long story, Duel, which he adapted for Spielberg’s terrifying made-for-television movie. Spielberg added scenes for a cinema release, but Matheson preferred the TV version.

Other television films included The Night Stalker (1972) and a notable movie in which Dick Van Dyke drew on his own alcoholic struggle, The Morning After (1974). A Hammer work, The Devil Rides Out (1968), from the novel by Dennis Wheatley, gave scope to a sinister Charles Gray as the leader of a satanic cult.

Matheson continued to write short stories, and also returned to novels with the gothic Hell House (1971), which became the lacklustre film The Legend Of Hell House (1973). Bid Time Return (1975), in which a man travels through time to pursue the subject of a 19th-century portrait, was filmed as Somewhere In Time in 1980 with Christopher Reeve. What Dreams May Come (1978, adapted in 1998 into an Oscar-winning film with Robin Williams) revealed Matheson’s growing preoccupation with psychic matters, and these were the subject of his non-fiction work The Path (1993). His work for children included the charming tale Abu And The Seven Marvels (2002).

Matheson is survived by his wife and their four children, three of whom became writers. – Guardian News & Media


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