You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Sunday, May 27, 2012

THE HORROR! THE HORROR!: RICHARD MATHESON

Richard Matheson has an impressive seventy-nine credits on the Internet Movie Database. Some of these are writing credits, but most fall into the subcategory of "original story by." In a way this is even more impressive than screenplay credits. Since the 1950's, Matheson has written nearly eighty short stories and novels that disturb us.

There is a lot of "I didn't know he wrote that" material here. He wrote "Duel," the story of a driver pursued by a deadly 18 wheeled tractor trailor. It became a classic made-for-tv movie by Stephen Spielberg and also had the unique distinction of causing a copy of Playboy magazine to circulate my dorm with the recommendation, "You really need to read this story." When Karen Black spent thirty minutes back in 1975 chased around her apartment by an African fetish doll wielding a butcher knife, that experience came to us courtesy of Matheson. (The short story is called "Prey.") One of the earliest moments of pure terror experienced by people my age was on the Twilight Zone episode where a man we did not know at the time was William Shatner discovered a gremlin on the  wing of a passenger plane. ("Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.") OK, when you see it now the gremlin looks like a sour-pussed, geriatric Teletubby, but I remember suffering the torments of hell waiting for Bill to take one more look out the window. Today you are likely to be more horrified by the fact that he has a gun in his luggage.

OK, it was scary at the time


At this year's Bram Stoker Awards, Matheson's I am Legend was named the greatest vampire novel of the 20th century. First published in 1954, it still reads as an innovative tale of one man facing the nightly, tiresome, and dangerous visitations of neighbors turned into vampires by a combination of dust from nuclear testing and the dormant bacteria it activates. Today we might quibble over whether these are zombies or vampires, but I am Legend plays out what is almost always Matheson's theme: One man -- or Karen Black -- alone, facing a crisis that defies reason but that can only be fought by reason. 

I am Legend has been filmed three times in versions ranging from interesting to the absolutely abominable The Omega Man (1971) This starred Charlton Heston at his most unpleasant. Matheson's greatest novel, The Shrinking Man, became under Jack Arnold's direction one the greatest SF films of the 1950's, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957.) (Director Bert I. Gordon released The Amazing Colossal Man that year. Extra adjectives were in vogue.) In the film, Guy Madison plays Scott Carey, a man who, after exposure to a combination of fallout and insecticides, begins to shrink 1/7th of an inch a day. The movie traverses a relentless straight line to one of the most beautiful, existential moments of 1950's American film. In Matheson's novel we get the prologue featuring the infection, then move straight to Carey's final days stuck in his own basement fighting off a black widow spider, a flooding hot water heater, and the fact that in five days he will cease to have any physical presence on earth. Flashback sequences, most of them covered in the movie, chronicle his deteriorating marriage, his humiliating celebrity, and the excruciating moment when his wife buys him a dollhouse to live in. It will protect him from the cat. (Note to wife: Get rid of the cat.)

I have not read everything by Matheson that has been filmed, and he also worked on original screenplays. He wrote The House of Usher, the first Roger Corman Edgar Allen Poe adaptation. He also worked on the screenplay for the very much worth taking another look at Jaws III 3D (1981). I swear it is a lot of fun. His novel Stir of Echoes I have not read, but it made into a nifty horror film in 1999. He has both the novel and screenplay credit on the ponderous Legend of Hell House (1973). I am not sure of the publication history here, but the "novel" I tried to read could easily have been a novelization of the screenplay. The film is portentous and silly. The book is simply bad. 

So here's to Richard Matheson, and his much deserved Bram Stoker Award. And go rent Jaws III 3D.


In a world of monotonous horror, there can be no salvation in wild dreaming. --Richard Matheson, I am Legend


I reviewed two Matheson novels on Worlds Without End

I am Legend

The Shrinking Man

1 comment:

  1. Just to set the record straight, Scott Carey, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, was played by Grant Williams rather than Guy Madison. And, to answer your question, HELL HOUSE was published in 1971 and then adapted by Matheson into the screenplay for THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, not the other way around. I may differ with you on the relative merits of that book and movie, but we obviously agree that he is a major talent with an impressive list of film and television credits as both an author and a screenwriter. Like you, I am especially fond of the novel I AM LEGEND and the films STIR OF ECHOES (also a good novel) and DUEL. For further information, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4216-4).

    ReplyDelete