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Simon Bestwick pays tribute to Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson A memory, nearly thirty years old but crystal clear.

I’m ten years old. It’s a cold December evening, a couple of weeks before Christmas, and I’m in the sports hall at my school. It’s a vast, high-ceilinged space, walled with breezeblocks, with the acoustic qualities of the Whispering Gallery crossed with a reverb pedal. I’m here because there’s a jumble sale on.

On one of the stalls there’s a slim paperback book, with a cover showing a flayed man’s face. It is called Shock 3, and the author is called Richard Matheson.

I can’t remember how much I paid for that book. 10p, 20p? Whatever the figure, it was a bargain.

I’d read a couple of Matheson stories before, in anthologies like Ramsey Campbell’s The Gruesome Book and Peter Haining’s Vampire. Enough that I already knew the name. But now I dived into a full collection of his work, a place where science fiction, horror, fantasy and black humour lay side by side and in many cases intermingled.

Matheson was a brilliant storyteller.

Just to clarify, I don’t mean that in the much-abused modern sense used to describe talent vacuums like Dan Brown. What Brown does isn’t storytelling, it’s throwing cardboard characters into contrived cliffhanger situations and performing a Dance of the Seven Veils with a big, mystical secret.

Story is that rare, wonderful thing where language, characterisation, ideas and narrative combine to produce one single thing where you can’t prise one element apart from the rest. It just is what it is, and those who can do it make it look so bloody simple to the rest of us. But it takes an awesome level of both work and talent to do it.

In a good storyteller’s hands, even the simplest or most hackneyed plot can become something special and profound. Ally that to a great imagination, and you might just get a writer like the one we’ve just lost.

He wrote stories, novels, screenplays, teleplays, and he was great at them all. He adapted many of his best tales into scripts for The Twilight Zone: ‘Long Distance Call’ (aka ‘Sorry, Right Number’), ‘Steel’ (filmed again as Real Steel in 2011),  ‘Button, Button’ (filmed again in 2009 as The Box), ‘Third From The Sun’, and ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.’ He also wrote episodes of Star Trek and the TV movies The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, for which he created the character of journalist Carl Kolchak, played by the always-wonderful Darren McGavin.

Remember those Roger Corman horror movies with Vincent Price? The scripts for The Fall Of The House Of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum were both Matheson’s work, not to mention The Devil Rides Out, The Raven and Night of the Eagle. (Okay, he wrote Jaws 3-D and Loose Cannons too, but nobody’s perfect.)

And that’s not even mentioning his novels – to name just the ones that were filmed, there’s The Shrinking Man, Hell House, A Stir Of Echoes, What Dreams May Come, Somewhere In Time and, of course, I Am Legend – adapted for the third time in 2007.

None of this even comes close to communicating the brilliance of Matheson’s writing. His writing had a lyricism to it, like Ray Bradbury’s, but it was a tauter, more pared-down music, in keeping with a grittier, darker – though never wholly bleak or cheerless – vision of the world. He could say more in a paragraph than many writers can in a page.

But that still doesn’t tell you why he was so damn good. That’s beyond my poor powers. All I can suggest is that if you haven’t read Richard Matheson, you get on Amazon, or down to your local bookshop, and remedy that situation. Believe me, you will be glad you did.

And if you have read him before: what the hell, why not do it again? I know I’m going to.

Matheson was to have been one of the Guests of Honour at this year’s World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, but sadly had to cancel, citing ill-health. In retrospect, perhaps that should have been a warning. I’m sorry not to have had the chance to get that battered old copy of Shock 3 signed, and sorrier still not to have had a chance to speak, however briefly, to the man who wrote it and tell him how much his work meant to me, then and now.

But the greatest loss is his family’s, who’ve lost a husband and a father. That void can’t be filled; for those of us who knew him through his writing, Richard Matheson will always live on, as long as his words are read. And they will be read for a long, long time to come, maybe for as close to forever as we can dream.

Because – to use a phrase that’s already becoming overused, but is nonetheless true – he is legend.

SIMON BESTWICK

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