Remembering the legacy of Richard Matheson, creator of ‘I Am Legend’

Richard Matheson was a giant.

We don’t have writers like him today because we don’t have any idea what to do with them. Matheson was born in 1926, and as much as any author in any genre, his work defined and reflected the tumult of the 20th Century. He had a remarkable voice as a storyteller, and it should come as no shock to anyone to see the laundry list of authors who claim that he was their primary influence.

First published in 1950, Matheson was on fire from the moment he was introduced to a readership. I can’t imagine how amazing it must have been to be part of the The Southern California Writing Group in those days, with members like Matheson, Charles Beaumont, William Nolan, Ray Bradbury, and George Clayton Johnson, all masters in their own right.

As much as Rod Serling, Matheson was responsible for what we think of today as the “Twilight Zone” style of storytelling. Short, effective pieces that immediately create a sense of time and place and voice, and which end with a punch of some kind. Matheson had a real gift for creating a fantastic scenario and then somehow finding the very identifiable reality within that.

What amazes me is how a guy who could write so many things that meant so much to so many people could somehow still maintain a relatively low key degree of fame. We should have statues of Richard Matheson in front of libraries around this country, and yet for many audiences, they don’t even realize how much of his work marked them at some point.

“Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” was one of his “Twilight Zone” episodes, remade by George Miller for the 1983 feature film, and both versions are actor’s showcases, giving full permission to both William Shatner and John Lithgow to find the top and go gloriously, giddily over it. One could argue that without “Duel,” Spielberg might not have gotten the opportunity to become Spielberg. He wrote for “Star Trek” during its initial run, and he created the short-lived but highly-influential “Kolchak: The Night Stalker.”

I’ve always loved both the book and the film versions of “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” It is existential dread writ large, a piece about realizing how much larger than ourselves the world and the universe really are. It amazes me that no matter how many times people film it, they’ve still never really gotten “I Am Legend” right. There was “The Last Man On Earth,” and “The Omega Man” and of course the Will Smith version, and all three are okay movies that don’t really manage to capture the doomed poetic heart of the book. “What Dreams May Come” was based on one of his novels, and while I don’t think that film works, it’s a big noble mess, a fascinating almost. I adore the movie “Somewhere In Time,” and that’s a nice indication of just how versatile Matheson was as a storyteller.

My entire generation was scarred by “Trilogy Of Terror” on TV in 1975, an anthology film that was built on three of Matheson’s stories. That Zuni Fetish Doll is one of those images that you get burnt in during childhood and that you never, ever shake. More recently, Richard Kelly turned “Button, Button” into the film “The Box,” proof that there’s plenty of life left in Matheson’s catalog. Even “Real Steel,” although not a beat-for-beat adaptation, was built on a very strong foundation that Matheson laid out in his short story “Steel.”

Over the next few days, I have no doubt you’re going to see lovely tributes to Matheson from guys like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, and honestly, anyone who writes fantastic fiction for either books or magazines or films or TV owes some debt of some sort to Matheson. There is nothing you can do that will not in some way see you following in his footsteps. When I worked on “Masters Of Horror,” one of his children, Richard Christian Matheson, adapted one of his short stories for Tobe Hooper’s “Dance Of The Dead” episode. Chris Carter spoke at length during the run of “X-Files” about how much he owed to Matheson, and you can definitely feel his influence in the way that show told stories.

I have loved his books, his stories, things adapted from his work… he is more than an author. He is an institution. He is a cornerstone of everything that I love in storytelling. Richard Matheson is as significant a writer as this country has ever produced, and his work will be read for generations to come.

We lost a great one today.