Skulls in the Stars

Richard Matheson: The horrors next door


On December 15, a new action/horror film starring Will Smith will hit theatres: I Am Legend. The movie is based on a novella of the same name, written by the most famous horror author you’ve never heard of. This ‘Masters of Horror’ post is about that author: Richard Matheson.

American-born Richard Matheson has been a prolific author since his first published story in the 1950s, Born of Man and Woman. This story was an instant classic and catapulted Matheson to fame — at least among those who knew his work. He has written numerous stories and novels in horror, science fiction, fantasy, and some more conventional drama.

Why do I call him the most famous author you’ve never heard of? Because I guarantee that even if you’ve never heard his name, you’ve seen his work. He has written so many classic novels, short stories, and screenplays that you’re certain to know at least one of them.

Let’s start with the Twilight Zone: Do you recall the episode, later made into a movie, about a airline passenger who sees a creature on the wing of the plane? (Incidentally, William Shatner and John Lithgow each played the role of the crazed passenger, and they have a funny dialogue on an episode of 3rd Rock From the Sun, in which Lithgow asks Shatner: “How was your flight?” Shatner: “There was a man on the wing of the plane!” Lithgow: “The same thing happened to me!”) That’s Matheson’s Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. Or the episode about a woman who receives strange phone calls at night, that turn out to have come from downed lines in the local cemetery? That’s Matheson’s Sorry, Right Number. Or the one about a lady who finds a tiny UFO filled with tiny alien invaders on her roof? That’s The Invaders.

Let’s look at movies: Recall the movie, directed by then-relative-newbie Steven Spielberg, about a man pursued through the desert by a relentless tanker truck? That’s Duel. How about the tale of a man who starts shrinking after exposure to a chemical cloud? Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. (A remake is planned in 2008). Seen the Christopher Reeve romance about a man who travels through time and falls in love? Matheson’s Somewhere in Time.

Back to I Am Legend. A story about the last man alive on an Earth filled with vampires, it was made as The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price and as the ultra-ridiculous The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston.

The list goes on and on and on. Lots of people were traumatized in the 1970s by a movie involving an African doll which comes alive and chases a woman throughout her apartment. That segment of the movie, Trilogy of Terror, is based on Matheson’s story Prey.

One last, hugely important one, to mention. I grew up watching the cult classic television series The Night Stalker, about an obnoxious reporter who investigates the supernatural (played masterfully by Darren McGavin). Matheson wrote the screenplay for the original movie and for a sequel, The Night Strangler.

Matheson is the writer who first started me thinking about the preferred themes of horror writers. In Matheson’s case, I often refer to him as a writer of ‘suburban horror’. Traditional ghost stories have lost some of their bite in the modern world, with our technology and science giving us protection. What Matheson did exceptionally well is turn those modern gadgets against us, showing us that modernity is no defense against fear and horror. He shows us that we can find horror right next door, or within our own house, if we look for it.

This is exemplified in his stories Nightmare at 20,000 Feet and Duel, which demonstrate how a simple airplane flight or cross-country drive can turn into, well, a nightmare. Sorry, Right Number turns the ringing of our telephone into an ominous sound. The Incredible Shrinking Man shows us how a mundane household can turn into a deadly wilderness. Prey shows us how a small apartment can seem like a deathtrap. I Am Legend shows us that there is no safety in numbers, because everyone else in the world can be turned against you.

In recent years Matheson has moved away from science fiction and horror. However, he’s left an excellent collection of stories that continue to influence, amaze and frighten. And, as mentioned, they continue to be adapted to film. There’s even one more that I didn’t mention: The Box. I suspect that Matheson’s talent for making the modern world scary will keep his works vital and relevant for years to come.