We seem to be losing a lot of good ones this year, and now the great Richard Matheson is gone. It sucks.
Matheson was – and continues to be – a huge influence on many in the genre. He was an influence on me before I even knew who he was, thanks to Twilight Zone: The Movie which I saw when I was young. It featured the classic ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ with John Lithgow as the terrified airline passenger, lightning flashing outside to show him…something, out there on the wing. I loved it, and it became my favourite (and the most memorable) segment of the film. From the film I went to The Twilight Zone series where I was treated again to the same story, this time with William Shatner in the role. From then on I was hooked.
So I loved Richard Matheson without knowing it yet.
Other early encounters were similarly through the screen, with Duel (brilliant! So simple! So believable!), What Dreams May Come which I still love (despite its saccharine sentiment, hell, probably because of it) and Stir of Echoes which struck me as another simple solid story, and all the more effective for it. But the books… the stories…
My formal introduction to the guy came through Stephen King. I expect it was the same for many people. King was praising Matheson and citing him as a direct influence on his own work, using I Am Legend as an example of how horror can use a suburban environment to great effect, and how the genre can deliver quite the powerful punch. I picked up a copy as part of a SF Masterworks series by Gollancz and was blown away by its ending (we won’t talk about the Will Smith version). I quickly found copies of A Stir of Echoes, Hell House (what a sex scene!), and the collection Nightmare At 20,000 Feet. Back when I was still learning who was who, trying to decide which anthologies were worth getting, I’d buy the ones that had his name in the contents. There were quite a few. I found the brilliant ‘Graveyard Shift’ that way, which I’ve used in several of my English classes (I also discovered his son that way – Richard Christian Matheson’s ‘Bleed’ is remarkable, and another story I use in class).
Plenty have noted the influence Richard Matheson has had on their work – on their lives – and I count myself among them. These words are simply my way of saying thank you, as I’m no longer able to do so in person. Thanks for the stories (the films, the episodes) and thanks for showing me how to make the impossible possible. Thanks for helping me step over into The Twilight Zone; I don’t think I’ve ever quite made it back.