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.