Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Richard Matheson, Rest in Peace. (1926-2013)

On Sunday, June 23, we lost a titan when Richard Matheson passed at the age of 87. When we lost Ray Bradbury, I wrote a piece memorializing him, so to not do so for Matheson would be a dereliction of duty, a shirking of my well meaning nerd blogging responsibilities.
Also, Hans Moleman driving an AMC Gremlin.
Like Bradbury's, Matheson's output was prolific, diverse, and influential. His name, however, was not as widely known. When I discovered him in my early 20s, I was shocked to learn that I had already known a great deal of his work, and that it had all come from the same mind. Richard Matheson gave us more pop culture sci-fi hallmarks than arguably anyone else ever has. William Shatner losing his mind in an airplane after seeing a gremlin on the wing in The Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (and the amazing Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror parody "Terror at 5 1/2 Feet"), a panicked father hearing his daughter's disembodied voice and unable to reach her in "Little Girl Lost" (and the amazing Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror parody "Homer3"), and many other non-Simpsons related moments such as zombies.

Yep, zombies.

Here's where things get really interesting to me about Matheson's legacy. In 1954, Matheson published a very, very cool book called I am Legend about a scientist who appears to be the last living man on earth and spends his days killing members of the horde of zombie-vampires that torment him and now roam the city in the wake of a global plague that reduced humanity to insatiable carnivorous automatons. Starting with the 1964 Vincent Price picture The Last Man on Earth, there have been three adaptations of the book, including Charlton Heston in 1971's The Omega Man and 2007's Will Smith picture I Am Legend. I will intone in my best old man voice that none of these are nearly as good as the book, either in their plot, character development, or overall emotional impact. But for Matheson, the most faithful adaptation of his book was an uncredited one -- George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, which we can all thank for every modern zombie story since 1968, and which Brad Pitt can thank for giving him the biggest box office opening of his career. World War Z and I am Legend are almost totally compatible, and the story of Matheson's Robert Neville and his heartbreakingly misguided quest could just as easily be a series of journal entries in Max Brooks' epistolary novel.

Zombies have been around since ancient times, but Matheson codified in a single work (that is usually characterized as a vampire novel) almost all of the hallmarks that we now consider to be fundamental to the zombie genre. The plague/epidemic, the mindless hordes that want to eat the living, the isolated hero against an onrushing wave of non-humanity. All that. But he also advanced the haunted house genre, in print and on film, as I discussed in my review of Hell House, helped bring about the supernatural/psychological thriller genre with Burn, Witch, Burn, which I also reviewed for this site, and gave Boris Karloff's career a lovely, and loving third act through a series of films with Roger Corman. He also helped launch Steven Spielberg's directing career, which is nice, since our lives would all be slightly more empty without Indiana Jones in them (not Matheson's character).

I think I probably have more films/TV shows on my shelf written by Richard Matheson than by any other writer. I think I have reviewed more films written by Richard Matheson on this site than I have any other writer. If you have not read him or sought out his films, treat yourself to them.

Richard Matheson, you were Legend.