Wednesday, 26 June 2013

RIP Richard Matheson 1926-2013

It seems like this year is determined to take all my heroes and inspirations away from me. Richard Matheson was one of the greats of science fiction and fantasy, a true giant of the genre and one of those writers whose work you will have encountered far more often than you realise.

His most famous work is, of course, I Am Legend, a seminal work in the sf-horror genre that influenced no end of later material. Seriously, if it features vampires, zombies or rampaging ghouls, then Matheson's 1954 novella is its ultimate source. This truly powerful work was adapted for film in 1964 as The Last Man on Earth, then as The Omega Man in 1971 and under its original title for the 2007 Will Smith vehicle (plus the inevitable Asylum rip-off, I Am Omega). Romero's Night of the Living Dead was also inspired by the book, inspiring a plethora of later walking dead films itself. The Last Man on Earth  was the only adaptation with which Matheson was involved; the later versions were only very loosely based on the novella, with the 2007 blockbuster being a particularly good example of a good, fun film that spectacularly misses the point of its source material. I Am Legend is an astonishing examination of the nature of monstrousness, and a must-read for any genre fan (and happens to be my flatmate's favourite book ever).

While I Am Legend will rightfully be the work for which Matheson is most remembered, he was the author of various other works for prose, film and television. The Shrinking Man, an examination of man's place in the world and the plight of the little man against greater powers, was adapted by Matheson himself into a screenplay for Universal Pictures, filmed as the true sci-fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man. He also adapted his own novel Hell House to become the movie The Legend of Hell House, an acclaimed horror. Another novel, A Stir of Echoes, was adapted for film in 1999 (I'm afraid I've neither seen nor read this one, so I cannot comment on it).

Not all of his work was gruesome or horror-based. Matheson also wrote the lengthy examination of life after death What Dreams May Come. Having developed from his own Christian Scientist background his own faith that incorporated elements of spiritualism, astrology and Theosophy, What Dreams May Come was Matheson's opportunity to explore his own feelings on the nature of life, death and love. The novel is sometiems described as part of the Bangsian genre of fantasy, and  it can also be considered an update of Dante's The Divine Comedy, shorn of its Christian bias. It was adapted for film in 1998 and starred Robin Williams; this version of the story is overly sentimental but, I feel, unfairly maligned.

Another Matheson prose work adapted for film is Bid Time Return, which became the sappy but frankly beautiful Somewhere in Time, starring the late Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. I am unashamed to call myself a fan of this film, credibility be damned. Bid Time Return, which was also printed under the film's title, was Matheson's favourite of his own novels, and can be considered a companion piece to What Dreams May Come, the two novels depicting love persisting through death and time. Matheson's grimly pessimistic I Am Legend and reputation as a horror writer have overshadowed this far more hopeful side to his work.

Matheson is also remembered for The Beardless Warriors, his fictionalised memorial of his time in the armed forces, which was very loosely adapted as The Young Warriors; for the short story and screenplay Duel, which was filmed by Stephen Spielberg and is considered one of the greatest feature length TV productions; and for numerous other short stories, novels and scripts, many, but not all of which were of the horror genre.

As well as these standalone works, Matheson contributed to several TV series during the twentieth century, sometimes under the pen name Logan Swanson. He wrote no fewer than fourteen episodes of The Twilight Zone, including such seminal stories as 'Button, Button,' and the Shatner acting masterclass that is 'Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,' itself adapted for a later update and parodied so memorably by The Simpsons and many others. He also wrote the short story 'First Anniversary,' which was adapted as a peculiar episode of the nineties revival of The Outer Limits. He was responsible for the hugely influential The Night Stalker, the supernatural thriller that spawned a sequel and a spin-off series and was the primary inspiration for The X-Files. He even wrote for the original Star Trek, responsible for yet more Shatner histrionics with the classic episode 'The Enemy Within.'

May you enjoy afterlife, Mr Matheson. You are legend.

Under the break - Matheson's first short story sale, 'Born on Man and Woman,' written when he was 22 years old.

Born Of Man And Woman

by Richard Matheson

X — This day when it had light mother called me retch. You retch she said. I saw in her eyes the anger. I wonder what it is a retch.

This day it had water falling from upstairs. It fell all around. I saw that. The ground of the back I watched from the little window. The ground it sucked up the water like thirsty lips. It drank too much and it got sick and runny brown. I didn’t like it.

Mother is a pretty I know. In my bed place with cold walls around I have a paper things that was behind the furnace. It says on it SCREENSTARS. I see in the pictures faces like of mother and father. Father says they are pretty. Once he said it. And also mother he said. Mother so pretty and me decent enough. Look at you he said and didnt have the nice face. I touched his arm and said it is alright father. He shook and pulled away where I couldn’t reach. Today mother let me off the chain a little so I could look out the little window. Thats how l saw the water falling from upstairs.

XX — This day it had goldness in the upstairs. As I know when I looked at it my eyes hurt. After I look at it the cellar is red.

I think this was church. They leave the upstairs. The big machine swallows them and rolls out past and is gone. In the back part is the little mother. She is much small than me. lam I can see out the little window all I like.

In this day when it got dark I had eat my food and some bugs. I hear laughs upstairs. I like to know why there are laughs for. I took the chain from the wall and wrapped it around me. I walked squish to the stairs.

They creak when I walk on them. My legs slip on them because I dont walk on stairs. My feet stick to the wood. I went up and opened a door. It was a white place. White as white jewels that come from upstairs sometime. I went in and stood quiet. I hear the laughing some more. I walk to the sound and look through to the people. More people than I thought was. I thought I should laugh with them.

Mother came out and pushed the door in. It hit me and hurt. I fell back on the smooth floor and the chain made noise. I cried. She made a hissing noise into her and put her hand on her mouth. Her eyes got big. She looked at me. I heard father call. What fell he called. She said a iron board. Come help pick it up she said. He came and said now is that so heavy you need. He saw me and grew big. The anger came in his eyes. He hit me. I spilled some of the drip on the floor from one arm. It was not nice. It made ugly green on the floor.

Father told me to go to the cellar. I had to go. The light it hurt some now in my eyes. It is not so like that in the cellar.

Father tied my legs and arms up. He put me on my bed. Upstairs I heard laughing while I was quiet there looking on a black spider that was swinging down to me. I thought what father said. Ohgod he said. And only eight.

XXX — This day father hit in the chain again before it had light. I have to try pull it out again. He said I was bad to come upstairs. He said never do that again or he would beat me hard. That hurts. I hurt. I slept the day and rested my head against the cold wall. I thought of the white place upstairs.

XXXX — I got the chain from the wall out. Mother was upstairs. I heard little laughs very high. I looked out the window. I saw all little people like the little mother and little fathers too. They are pretty.

They were making nice noise and jumping around the ground. Their legs was moving hard. They are like mother and father. Mother says all right people look like they do.

One of the little fathers saw me. He pointed at the window. I let go and slid down the wall in the dark. I curled up as they would not see. I heard their talks by the window and foots running. Upstairs there was a door hitting. I heard the little mother call upstairs. I heard heavy steps and I rushed in my bed place. I hit the chain in the wall and lay down on my front.

I heard my mother come down. Have you been at the window she said. I heard the anger. Stay away from the window. You have pulled the chain out again.

She took the stick and hit me with it. I didnt cry. I cant do that. But the drip ran all over the bed. She saw it and twisted away and made a noise. Oh mygodmygod she said why have you done this to me? I beard the stick go bounce on the stone floor. She ran upstairs. I slept the day.

XXXXX — This day it had water again. When mother was upstairs I heard the little one come slow down the steps. I hidded myself in the coal bin for mother would have anger if the little mother saw me.

She had a little live thing with her. It walked on the arms and had pointy ears. She said things to it. It was all right except the live thing smelled me. It ran up the coal and looked down at me. The hairs stood up. In the throat it made an angry noise. I hissed but it jumped on me.

I didnt want to hurt it. I got fear because it bit me harder than the rat does. I hurt and the little mother screamed. I grabbed the live thing tight. It made sounds I never heard. I pushed it all together. It was all lumpy and red on the black coal.

I hid there when mother called. I was afraid of the stick. She left. I crept over the coal with the thing. I hid it under my pillow and rested on it. I put the chain in the wall again.

X — This is another times. Father chained me tight. I hurt because he beat me. This time I hit the stick out of his hands and made noise. He went away and his lace was white. He ran out of my bed place and locked the door.

I am not so glad. All day it is cold in here. The chain comes slow out of the wall. And I have a bad anger with mother and father. I will show them. I will do what I did that once.

I will screech and laugh loud. I will run on the walls. Last I will hang head down by all my legs and laugh and drip green all over until they are sorry they didn’t be nice to me.

If they try to beat me again Ill hurt them. I will.

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