News Column

Richard Matheson, celebrated sci-fi writer, dies at 87 [Portland Press Herald (ME)]

June 26, 2013


Richard Matheson, celebrated sci-fi writer, dies at 87

BY ADAM BERNSTEIN The Washington Post

Richard Matheson, an influential writer of macabre screenplays, novels and short stories who captured the paranoia of the post- World War II era in works such as "Duel," "The Shrinking Man," "I Am Legend" and one of the best "Twilight Zone" episodes ever made, died Sunday at his home in Calabasas, Calif. He was 87.

[image removed] Caption:

This 2004 photo shows writer Richard Matheson. Matheson, the prolific sci-fi and fantasy writer whose "I Am Legend" was transformed into a film three times, died Sunday, June 23, 2013. He was 87. (AP Photo/Los Angeles Times, Beatrice de Gea)

The Writers Guild of America, West, announced the death but did not disclose a cause.

Matheson, a self-described specialist in the "offbeat," was one of the most prolific horror and science-fiction authors of the 1950s, '60s and '70s, and many of his stories were adapted for movies and television. Stephen King, Anne Rice and Ray Bradbury cited Matheson as an inspiration for their writing.

His best works were economically told, with ripples of subtle tension building to a riveting finale. His plots often ventured into the supernatural, but the suspense was grounded in the essential frailties he observed in real people.

Two of his most anthologized works were "Born of Man and Woman" (1950), about a mutant child chained in the cellar of a young couple's home, and "The Prey" (1969), about a murderous Zuni doll hunting down a woman in her New York apartment.

Matheson set himself apart from many science-fiction and horror writers of a previous generation by examining the anxieties of the modern age, which often played out in Darwinian struggles.

"The Shrinking Man," published in 1956 and filmed the next year as "The Incredible Shrinking Man" with actor Grant Williams, featured a handsome suburbanite who gets one-seventh of an inch smaller every day because of exposure to radiation. His confidence and masculinity are tested to the point where everyday surroundings, including the pet cat, become mortal threats.

Steven Spielberg, a devotee of Matheson's work, first gained wide acclaim as a director with his 1971 made-for-television movie of the author's short story "Duel." The Spielberg version starred Dennis Weaver as a California businessman on a road trip who is drawn into a battle to the death by a malevolent tank truck.

Matheson said the idea for the "Duel" plot came to him after being "traumatized" by a tailgating truck. He recalled it so vividly because it happened on the day of President John F. Kennedy's assassination.

Isolation and psychological distress were among the recurring themes in Matheson's writing. As a result, he became one of the most frequent contributors to Rod Serling's television series "The Twilight Zone" in the late 1950s and early 1960s and in later years for Serling's anthology series "Night Gallery."

Matheson's 1963 "Twilight Zone" teleplay for "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," starring William Shatner as a terrified airplane passenger who is convinced that a monster is trying to shear off the wings, is widely regarded as one of the defining episodes. The story was later included in "Twilight Zone: The Movie" (1983).

The idea developed, unsurprisingly, on an airplane ride. Matheson told an interviewer with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation that "I looked out and there was all these fluffy clouds, and I thought, gee, what if I saw a guy skiing across that like it was snow because it looked like snow.

"But when I thought it over, that's not very scary, so I turned it into a gremlin out on the wing of the airplane."

Movies, which so often used his material, were a frequent source of Matheson's inspiration. His first horror novel, "I Am Legend" (1954), which concerned a plague that has turned virtually everyone but the narrator into a vampire, derived from Matheson's memories of the 1931 Bela Lugosi film "Dracula."

"It occurred to me that if one vampire was scary, a whole world populated by vampires would be really scary," he often said.

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