How do I describe their work? Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) wrote about people who learned that nothing was what they had always believed, and nothing/no one could be trusted... that they were living in what we today would call virtual reality, but what the Daoists called a "butterfly dream." If you haven't read Dick's work, you've seen some of the movies based on them: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Imposter, The Adjustment Bureau, and on and on, and if so, you see the theme.
Richard Matheson's work had a theme, too. Most of his work was about a man alone, realizing just how alone he was -and, by extension, how alone we all are, how small we are compared to the universe. Or, as 19th century poet Stephen Crane put it:
A man said to the universe,
"Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"That fact has not created in me
"A sense of obligation."
If you think you've never heard of Richard Matheson, here are some examples of his work that have had an impact on American culture. You will recognize most of them, and will understand why Stephen King named him as one of his chief influences... and Ray Bradbury called him one of the most important writers of the 20th century.
I AM LEGEND (1954)
This is one of the greatest sci-fi/fantasy/horror novels ever written. It's about a man alone in a world of vampires -humans have been turned into bloodsuckers due to a virus triggered by biological warfare. The hero, Robert Neville -who has a natural immunity -spends his days hunting vampires, and his nights being hunted. He eventually realizes that, to his prey, they are normal and he is the monster...
The mutated bloodsuckers in this story were the inspiration for George Romero's zombie classic Night of the Living Dead (1968)... before that, Hollywood zombies were always corpses resurrected by voodoo shamans to do their will.
The novel has been the source of three big-budget adaptations. The one that sticks closest to the novel -and is by far the best, in my opinion -is the first, starring Vincent Price. It is still powerful after 50 years. This may be because it is the only version with input by Matheson himself (he co-wrote it under a pseudonym.) Pity anyone who brings up the Will Smith version to me, and has to listen to my harangue about how -by changing the ending -they ruined the whole point of the story.
THE SHRINKING MAN (1956)
This one -about an average guy accidentally exposed to radiation who shrinks... and shrinks... and shrinks... was made into a film the next year, called The Incredible Shrinking Man, with a screenplay by Matheson. I watched it recently on TCM -for the umpteenth time -with my wife, who had never seen it. She was expecting a cheesy drive in movie, and was extremely impressed by how compelling the movie was, and powerful, and philosophical.
A STIR OF ECHOES (1958)
A man develops psychic abilities, and starts getting disturbing messages from beyond the grave. Made into a film starring Kevin Bacon in 1999.
HOUSE OF USHER (1960); THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961); TALES OF TERROR (1962); THE RAVEN (1963)
Remember these Roger Corman adaptations of Poe, starring Vincent Price? Matheson screenplays.
THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968)
Matheson wrote the screenpay for this, one of the best of the Hammer horror films. In it, a duke (Christopher Lee) sets out to rescue a friend's son from an evil, devil-worshipping cult in 1920s England.
"BUTTON, BUTTON" (1970)
A couple with serious cashflow problems are given a mysterious box with a button on it -if you choose to push it, they are told, you will receive a substantial sum of money, and someone you don't know will die.
What could go wrong?
Made into an episode of the 1980s Twilight Zone revival, and the 2009 film The Box, starring Cameron Diaz and James Marsden.
HELL HOUSE (1971)
A team of parapsychologists spend the night in a haunted house -a good time for all. Made into a film called The Legend of Hell House in 1973, screenplay by Matheson.
A genial salesman is chased across the Southwestern desert for no apparent reason by a pychopathic truck driver. Made into a TV movie of the same name, screenplay by Matheson, starring Dennis Weaver -and directed by a very young Steven Spielberg.
THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)
The introduction of Carl Kolchak, everyone's favorite rumpled tabloid reporter with a knack for stumbling across monsters and demons -without ever quite getting proof of it. This initial TV movie was followed by a second, also written by Matheson: The Night Strangler (1973), then by the short-lived but much beloved TV series in 1974.
BID TIME RETURN (1975)
A playwright falls in love with a photo of a woman- taken in 1912- and is transported back in time. Filmed in 1980 as Somewhere in Time, a classic tear-jerker with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.
WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1978)
A man travels through heaven and hell to find his lost wife. Made into a film of the same name in 1998, starring Robin Williams.
JOURNAL OF THE GUN YEARS (1992)
This is one of several outstanding western novels written by Matheson. It won the Spur Award from Western Writers of America, and in my opinion is one of the best novels ever written in the genre. The story is constructed as several journals cobbled together, discovered after the death of a famous gunfighter, detailing his journey from a fresh, young Union soldier to a hardened killer, to a haunted man.
And lest we forget, the original Twilight Zone... Matheson wrote 14 episodes, and two others were based on his published short stories, adapted by Rod Serling.
1. "And When the Sky Was Opened." 1959. A lost astronaut returns home to discover no one remembers him. Serling screenplay, Matheson story.
2. "Third from the Sun." 1960. Two families plan to escape Earth on a spaceship on the Eve of WWIII. Serling screenplay, Matheson story.
3. "The Last Flight." 1960. A WWI fighter pilot takes off in 1918 and lands in 1960. Matheson.
4. "A World of Difference." 1960. A businessman going about his life discovers that he is actually on the set of a movie. Matheson.
5. "A World of His Own." 1960. A writer discovers he can change reality... by re-writing it. Matheson.
6. "The Nick of Time." 1960. William Shatner gets sucked in by a weird bobble-headed fortune telling machine. Matheson.
7. "The Invaders." 1961. Agnes Moorehead vs. teeny tiny aliens. Matheson.
8. "Once upon a Time." 1961. Buster Keaton travels forward in time, from 1890 to 1961. Matheson.
9. "Little Girl Lost." 1962. A father tries to rescue his little girl, who is being sucked into a dimensional portal in her bedroom. Matheson.
10. "Young Man's Fancy." 1962. A newlywed gets pulled back in time to his own childhood. Matheson.
11. "Mute." 1963. The orphaned daughter of telepathic parents must learn to communicate. Matheson.
12. "Death Ship." 1963. Jack Klugman leads a group of astronauts that discovers a crashed spaceship -which is apparently their own. Matheson.
13. "Steel." 1963. In the future, boxing is outlawed and can only be done by robots. But manager Lee Marvin's robot is broken... so he decides to disguise himself as a robot and step into the ring against a killing machine. This was remade into the recent Hugh Jackman film Real Steel. Matheson.
14. "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." 1963. William Shatner FREAKS THE FRACK OUT. 'Nuff said. Matheson.
15. "Night Call." 1964. This is one of my favorites. A disabled elderly woman starts getting weird calls in the middle of the night. Which is weird, since the phone lines are down. Matheson.
16. "Spur of the Moment." 1964. An heiress is accosted by a middle-aged woman on horseback, warning her not to get married. Matheson.
Matheson wrote for several other TV shows, including The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Night Gallery, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Have Gun Will Travel, Cheyenne, Lawman...
And oh, yeah.
Remember the episode "The Enemy Within"? The one where a transporter accident separates Captin Kirk into his passive and aggressive components -wussy-Kirk and bully-Kirk?
He also wrote the screenplay for Jaws 3-D... but let's not talk about that.
He will be missed. But his footprint on American culture is deep.