Horror author Richard Matheson passed away on June 23th at the age of 87. I was a pretty big fan of his work. He wrote some incredibly imaginative, genuinely scary stories.
My first exposure to Matheson’s work had to be this anthology of short stories that someone gave me as a gift in the mid-1980s. The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories collected together all of the previously published short stories that were subsequently adapted into episodes of Rod Serling’s classic Twilight Zone television series. Matheson was the co-editor of the book, and it also contained several of his stories.
The most famous of those was “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the one featuring the monster on the airplane wing. Originally written in 1961, it was filmed two years later starring a young William Shatner. Of course I had heard all about this one previously, but I’d never actually had the opportunity to view it on television. Reading the original Matheson story was quite a harrowing experience, so much so that a couple of years later when I finally did catch the Twilight Zone episode, I was pretty much biting my nails, dreading the upcoming moment when Shatner was going to whip open the curtain over the airplane window to find the monster’s face glaring right at him. Inevitably the monster that my mind conjured up when reading Matheson’s actual story was infinitely more terrifying than the man in a panda bear suit that made it to television screens in 1963. (Matheson reportedly critiqued the on-screen realization of his gremlin as “a surly teddy bear.”) Nevertheless, the flawless direction by a young Richard Donner, combined with Matheson’s adaptation of his own material, made “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” a truly scary episode.
Another of Matheson’s great works was his 1954 novel I Am Legend. In the book, Robert Neville is the last man on Earth… but he is not alone. Every other human being across the globe has been infected by a plague which has transformed them into vampires. Neville spends the novel struggling to survive an unending onslaught of the undead, as well as the threat of madness & despair that threatens to engulf him in his solitude. I Am Legend is an extremely bleak, downbeat, apocalyptic novel. It is regarded as having been a major influence on the horror field, particularly the zombie sub-genre. The book has been adapted into three different movies: The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price (1964), The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston (1971) and I Am Legend starring Will Smith (2007). I haven’t seen that most recent one, but the Price version is quite atmospheric and remains pretty faithful to the original novel. The Heston version plays much more fast & loose with the material, and at times is sort of cheesy, but still entertains.
(As a side note, The Omega Man, with its scenes of Charlton Heston running around toting a machine gun, shooting at anything that moves, does almost come across as his audition tape for President of the NRA.)
Matheson also penned the chilling, atmospheric novel Hell House, which was published in 1971. Hell House details an attempt by a group of parapsychologists and psychics to investigate the infamous Belasco House, which is described as “the Mount Everest of Haunted Houses.” All of the previous individuals who have sought to explore the mysteries of Belasco House have met with either death or insanity. Matheson wrote the screenplay for the 1973 film version The Legend of Hell House, another one which I have not had the opportunity to see.
Hell House was adapted into a graphic novel by writer Ian Edginton & artist Simon Fraser, which IDW published in 2005. I have to admit, I hadn’t actually read Hell House before that point in time. But I was a fan of Fraser’s art, and intended to get the IDW book, so I picked up the original Matheson novel in order to read it first. Edginton & Fraser did a very good job on their version.
In addition to adapting his own writings for film & television, Matheson wrote screenplays based on others’ works, such as Edgar Allen Poe and Fritz Leiber. Among these was the script for The Devil Rides Out, based on Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 novel. Released in 1968, and starring Christopher Lee, it is definitely one of my favorite Hammer films.
All this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Richard Matheson’s prolific pen. If you are not familiar with his work, I encourage you to seek out some of his writings. Hell House and I Am Legend are both extremely haunting, unsettling reads.