One of the greatest joys I know is passing on the things I love to my son – showing him the films that lodged in my mind when I was a kid, reading him the books I loved. He’s eight years old. Last year I had the wonderful experience of watching Jack Arnold’s film of The Incredible Shrinking Man with him for the first time. I first saw the film when I was about his age, and it shook my world. It opened up doorways within me that still hang wide. Richard Matheson’s slender original novel – with the shorter title of The Shrinking Man – shook me even more; it still does, every time I read it.
That book led me to read more of Matheson. I started with the big guns – Hell House, I Am Legend – and worked my way down from there. I’ve never read a bad story by Matheson. He truly was one of the greats.
It doesn’t seem right to use that word in relation to him, his life. Because it means, of course, that he’s no longer with us. Richard Matheson died on 23 June 2013. He was 87 years old. He’d been ill for quite some time, but still that doesn’t make it any easier. Many of us thought of him as a god. He was certainly one of the true giants of horror fiction, one of the writers who opened up the genre and made it into something special, helped to create a form of genre writing that could be used to examine the modern world and man’s place in it.
Last week I was with my wife in New York, celebrating my 10th wedding anniversary. One of the books I picked up there was a collection of Matheson’s short stories: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. As well as the superb title story, it contains what I think is one of the man’s best, ‘The Distributor’. Do yourself a favour and get hold of a copy. Read that story. Marvel at the economy, the strength of vision, the simple fucking elegance of the man’s prose.
I’m going to read that tale again tonight, with the outer darkness pressing against the windows and the lights turned down low so that I have to squint to see the words. I’m going to read it aloud, and remember. I’m going to remember how I felt the first time I read about Scott Carey and the existential horror he experienced when he wouldn’t stop shrinking. I’m going to walk again through the halls of Hell House, and I’m going to lock the door against the vampires that stalk the night…
Another high point was Duel, which Steven Spielberg turned into the classic TV movie (Matheson adapted his own story, as he often did), starring Dennis Weaver. The film’s truly great, but the short story is its equal. Again, it’s all about economy, focus, a singular vision. Matheson had a way of cutting through the extraneous matter and finding the truth of the story. There’s no flab on his tales; they’re trim, fast, and effective, but without sacrificing literary skill. In short, he was a real class act.
His screenplay work was just as elegant and imaginative as his prose. He adapted for the screen stories by Poe, Stoker, and even Britain’s own Dennis Wheatley. His talent was diverse. He could turn his hand to anything the genre threw at him. His TV work included The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler, and The Twilight Zone – one of the best horror shows ever produced for TV.
If you’re not familiar with this stuff, educate yourself. There’s so much of his work out there, and hopefully there always will be. I think it’s a legacy that will last.
Without Matheson, it has been said, there would be no Stephen King. Without Stephen King, there might be no modern horror genre at all. We might all still be writing about ghosts in chains and cobweb-strewn castles. We must not underestimate Matheson’s importance in the field. He was a titan. He did it all. And he did it brilliantly.