Richard Matheson (February 20, 1926 – June 23, 2013) was an American author and screenwriter. He is primarily known for his work on the seminal TV show The Twilight Zone and his early work in the suspense field, namely his short story collections and his classic novel, I Am Legend.
Matheson was born in Allendale, New Jersey and raised in Brooklyn, New York, where his earliest stories and poems appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle in the mid-1930s, earning his first publication credit at eight years old. After high school, he served as an Army infantryman in World War II. After the war, he attended Cornell University and graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1949.
Matheson’s first professionally published story, “Born of Man and Woman,” appeared in 1950 and prompted the author to move to California hoping for a shot at working in the motion picture industry. Matheson enjoyed the horror films of Val Lewton and, later, enjoyed the mutual admiration of Ray Bradbury. As more of Matheson’s fiction saw print in everything from Weird Tales to Playboy, he landed a book publishing deal for his first collection of science fiction stories, Born of Man and Woman, in 1954. His novel I Am Legend was published the same year.
The door to Hollywood opened in the late 1950s when Universal Studios bought the rights to film his 1956 novel The Shrinking Man. Matheson wrote the script, which served as a springboard to his work on The Twilight Zone. Joining a roster of talented authors that included his friend Charles Beaumont, Matheson wrote 14 scripts for the show over the next five years. That led to later work on TV shows such as Thriller, Star Trek, Night Gallery, Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, an adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife (Burn Witch Burn), and a 1971 script based on one Matheson’s stories that became Stephen Spielberg’s feature-length directorial debut, Duel.
Even while Matheson was busy with television and motion pictures, he never neglected his prose fiction. He continued to sell short stories collected in several books in the 1960s, namely the Shock series, Shock! (1961), Shock II (1964), Shock III (1966), and Shock Waves (1970).
Matheson began to steer away from horror in the 1970’s. His romantic time travel novel Bid Time Return won the 1975 World Fantasy Award and was later filmed as Somewhere in Time with starring Christopher Reeves. This led him toward mainstream work, and eventually westerns. Matheson’s influence is hard to quantify, but many authors who achieved popularity in later years named him as an inspiration, including Stephen King.
I have fond personal memories of discovering Richard Matheson’s fiction. In the mid-1980s, I spent summers at my aunt and uncle’s house (as I’ve no doubt mentioned elsewhere). My aunt used to attend a Tai Chi class in St. Louis in Forest Park on Saturdays. I rode into the city with her and waited on the steps of the Missouri History Museum reading a reprint edition of Shock! Years later, as an aspiring author, I was at a Dallas convention with a friend and professional writer. I shared with him that I planned to attend a panel with editors from a major publishing house as guests, hoping to pick up some valuable tips. Since we talked shop, he knew of my fondness for Matheson’s work. He gave me friendly smile and said, “I attended a con once where Richard Matheson was on a ‘How to Get Published’ panel. He said there is no secret to success in writing except putting your butt in a chair and doing it. Someone asked the question, and he responded [paraphrased no doubt] ‘While you’re here at this convention, someone else is at home writing. That’s what I recommend.'” Having attended many conventions in past years I can say with 100% certainty that’s the best writing advice anyone has probably ever given at a convention: go home and write. Conventions don’t get you published, writing and submitting your work does.
The biographical information in this article came primarily from an interview in Faces of Fear by Douglas Winter, plus an article in Dark Dreamers by Stanley Wiater, and a 1994 New York Times article “New Jersey Q & A: Richard Matheson; An Influential Writer Returns to Fantasy” by Albert J. Parisi.
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5 thoughts on “Richard Matheson”
You wrote: “he never failed to neglect his prose fiction”… but I’m *pretty* sure that was *not* what you meant to say. 😉
While Duel came early in Spielberg’s career, he’d cut his teeth on other television fare, notably a segment in Night Gallery’s pilot, a couple of years prior.
And speaking of Matheson, I’ll never forget how entranced I was by his I Am Legend, unexpectedly devouring the novel from cover to cover in one sitting, perched on the edge of my bed. Fittingly, night had fallen as I read on in the fading autumn light.
Thanks for the memories!
Hello and thanks for the note. I made a couple of changes to correct the misstep on the wording. Appreciate you calling that out. I believe Duel was Spielberg’s first feature-length film for the masses, (very low budget indie efforts aside), so I put a finer point on that above.
Thanks for stopping in.
It happens to us all, Christopher — I’m happy to chip in and (phew) relieved that you didn’t take it the wrong way.
I marvel at how well Matheson was served by his own screenplays and adaptations of his work in the early-to-mid 70s. Duel, The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler, Trilogy of Terror… it’s practically become irrelevant that these were “mere” television movies… they’re all “proper” movies now. 😉
Beautiful piece, by the way. I really enjoyed your recollections. These contextual tidbits are well worth treasuring, as I’m sure you do.
A wonderful author. I need to finish reading his works.