Richard Matheson, Master Of The Incredible

Reading & Writing, The Arts


Richard Matheson, SF and fantasy writer, has died aged 87. In a career spanning more than 60 years, he wrote stories that smoothly translated from the page to both big and small screens. Several of his works were adapted into films, including 1953′s ‘Hell House’, 1956′s ‘The Shrinking Man’, 1958′s ‘A Stir of Echoes’ and 1978′s ‘What Dreams May Come’. He had that indefinable quality, readability, which so many authors never manage to achieve.

His horror novel ‘I Am Legend’ was a landmark work in the genre, ushering in zombies and apocalyptic themes to post-second world war America. The novel was adapted three times as a film, most recently in 2007 as a big-budget thriller of the same name starring Will Smith, but earlier in 1964 as the low budget ‘The Last Man on Earth’ and most successfully in 1971 as ‘The Omega Man’.

I’m fascinated by the transition from page to screen. To me one of the most depressing examples of dumbing down in Hollywood cinema in order to fit audience demographic profiles occurred with ‘I Am Legend’. In 1954 Richard Matheson wrote this science fiction novel about the only man on earth not afflicted with vampirism.

In 1964, AIP made a cheap film version of it starring Vincent Price, which many acknowledge as the template for all ‘living dead’ movies that have followed.

1968 saw the arrival of the second film version, ‘The Omega Man’. If you’ve seen this, you may recall that the war between scientist Robert Neville and the infected was one of conflicting ideologies; Neville’s technological determinism was the cause of the world’s end. The sick now shunned technology and turned back to faith in order to save the planet. Once the relationship between Neville and his infected opposite number, the intellectually conservative Matthius, had been established, we knew the conflict could not be resolved without Neville’s death because he was the last representative of the old guard, the true Omega Man who had to be superseded by religious zealots as the clock of civilisation was reset.

Complicating this was the fact that Matthius was himself infected, while the scientist Neville was not. Therefore there could be no real winners. While the virus might be halted, it couldn’t eradicate the new ideology, and to that extent Neville was as extinct as a dinosaur. This was the idea that drove the story and gave it so much resonance.

And so we arrive at the third ‘re-visioning’ (Like ‘imagineer’ and ‘quadrilogy’, this is a word that should never, ever be used) in 2007, starring Will Smith, and in this version the ideological impasse is the first thing to go. ‘I Am Legend’ is a triumph of style over ingenuity. Post-apocalyptic New York’s return to nature, all buzzing insects and grass thrusting through cracked concrete, is rendered in impeccable detail. Then the CGI zombies arrive and everything ends up in a welter of cheap shocks.

Now the infected weren’t real people, but had been replaced by superhuman computer animations. They couldn’t even speak, so there was no conflict at all, except the bog-standard Zombies VS Survivors tropes we’ve seen a million times before. When Charlton Heston sat in a cinema and mouthed the dialogue from ‘Woodstock’, he overturned our assumptions about him and made a point about free will. Will Smith got to duplicate the scene by mouthing dialogue from…’Shrek’. No longer could a simple idea be communicated to a mass audience without fear of alienating them.

More pernicious was the creepy use of the escape to Eden that ‘I Am Legend’ offered. Instead of a white Neville having sex with an independent black woman, we now had a black man chastely hanging out with a God-fearing (and safely light-skinned mixed-race) Brazilian girl. Instead of heading off to live in a flawed, argumentative commune built around new alternative families, something that would replace the traditional failing model of family life, we had the survivors arriving in a heavily guarded fortress town that looked like an isolationist Mormon Disneyland sponsored by the National Rifle Association. SF is required to reflect the era of its creation, which is why ‘I Am Legend’ rankles.

And some trivia about the music for ‘The Omega Man’. Occasionally, composers were able to ring startling changes by switching to unexpected sounds. Ron Grainer (of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and ‘Dr. Who’ theme) composed an astonishing score utilising timpani, marimba, xylophone, tabla and African drums over electric bass and strings for the SF epic. He also struck a set of different-sized discs from an old grandfather clock and immersed them in water to change their pitch. The resulting sound, from an instrument now known as waterchimes, is extremely eerie and sad, and became a staple of SF film scoring.
‘A Stir Of Echoes’ is worth seeking out on DVD as a good representation of Matheson’s work, as are his ‘Twilight Zone’ episodes.*
*Part of this article is excerpted from ‘Film Freak’.


11 comments on “Richard Matheson, Master Of The Incredible”

  1. Rick D says:

    A lovely tribute. I know his daughter, Ali (who lives here in the Vancouver area) – she informed me of his death this morning – he’s been sinking fast the last week or so. I will pass this along to her along with your condolences.


  2. Ken Murray says:

    I Am Legend is one of the truly great sci-fi concepts and probably transcends the genre. I have longed for a decent film version, even though I did enjoy Omega Man. But it seems it’s destined not to be as studios continue to dumb down further and further.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    I’ve read a lot of Richard Matheson and particularly enjoyed his early work. Hell House was fast reading – even if you wanted to take your time – although the ending was a bit of a disappointment at least for me. He was, indeed, highly readable.

  4. Bob Low says:

    Another very sad loss. Matheson brilliantly combined science fiction and horror in his work, in a way that few others have even attempted. His short stories are consistently original, and surprising, as well as being, as everyone agrees, readable. ”I Am Legend” is quite unique, and ”The Shrinking Man” takes a horrific idea, describes it’s day to day effects in terrible detail, and then goes on to become an almost up-lifting fable about human endurance. His excellent screenplays for Hammer, and Roger Corman’s Poe movies shouldn’t be forgotten either. What a shame his script for Hammer’s proposed ”The Haunting of Toby Jugg” never made it to the screen!

  5. Ralph Williams says:

    I think also worth mentioning are the Night Stalker films, which are well worth checking out.

  6. Gareth Reeve says:

    Bob, wow I would’ve loved to have seen that!(The haunting of Toby Jugg was without doubt one of my favourite books as a kid). I’m probably about to get intellectually slammed down here but did Matheson also write Farenheit?

  7. Gareth Reeve says:

    Sorry, it was Ray Bradbury. I did read I am Legend but would like to read more of his works. Any recommendations?(Is there a collection of his short stories?)

  8. Bob Low says:

    Hi, Gareth-no need to apologise. One of the most appealing things about this site is the lack of slamming of any kind. There is at least one Matheson-Bradbury connection that comes to mind. I think Matheson adapted Bradbury’s ”Martian Chronicles” for American television in the late seventies. Bradbury, however, was not particularly impressed with the end result. It’s a mixed bag, but probably falls down by trying to be too faithful to some of the least filmable parts of the original. I managed to pick up the three volume Collected Stories of Richard Matheson, from Gauntlet Press, a few years ago, and all three volumes stilll seem to be available from the usual internet outlets. Each story is bookended with notes from the author, which are interesting, frequently funny, and charmingly self-effacing. If you get one, you’ll probably want the other two.

  9. Dan Terrell says:

    NYT today has a very fine remembrance as well.

  10. Mike says:

    I always liked the Legend of Hell House, for which he wrote the screenplay. Odd music in that one too – very atmospheric though.

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