Richard Matheson, best known as a science fiction writer, died Monday night. He was 87.
I say ‘best known as a sci-fi writer’ because that’s how the obituaries are identifying him. Reuters did so, The Atlantic Wire says that he “defined sci-fi”. Others, like io9.com, remember him as the author of I Am Legend.
I don’t want to take any of that away from him. It’s just that I never thought of Matheson as strictly a science fiction writer. I thought he had a greater range than that. He told fantastic, memorable stories that spoke to legions of fans.
My first encounter with Matheson’s work was a copy of his Shock! anthology that my parents bought me when I was ten. I had encountered his work earlier than that–multiple episodes of the Twilight Zone (including favorites like “Mute“, “Death Ship“, “Steel“, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet“, “Night Call“, “Spur of the Moment“) and a particularly wacky episode of Star Trek TOS (“The Enemy Within“)–but it wasn’t until much later that I started paying attention to him specifically. Shock! has a bunch of sciencey-type stories between the covers: “Dance of the Dead”, about battlefield zombies harnessed by unscrupulous nightclubs for entertainment; “Lemmings”, a very strange short-short about a country-wide suicide episode, and “The Creeping Terror” about a madness-inducing fungus that spreads across North America, are three that stay with me.
Other works from that collection have nothing to do with empirical reality but are just plain fun to read: “The Ledge”, about a wager gone horribly wrong; “The Legion of Plotters”, about a touch of persecution, and “Death Ship”, about three astronauts forever trying to get home and failing miserably, are three without any science at all but which are compelling fiction nonetheless.
Then there are stories like “The Splendid Source” (which was recently turned into a Family Guy episode) which are just a good, weird flavor of awesome.
Anyway, I got older, and I read everything from Matheson I could find. Luckily, his work was in constant circulation and I come from a long line of old school sci-fi geeks, enabling me to find original prints of stories like “Born of Man and Woman” which appeared in the Year’s Best Science Fiction of 1950. Considering that gems like “The Weapon Shop” by A.E. van Vogt and “It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby were in the same volume, Matheson had excellent company. “Steel” of course gave rise to the Twilight Zone episode of the same name and while I haven’t seen Real Steel yet, I want to eventually. I mean, come on, who doesn’t really want to see Wolverine teach a ten foot robot how to box like a pro?
I purposely stayed away from his longer works for years. I liked his short stories so much, I didn’t want to ruin the appreciation I had for them. But I was in the habit of seeing the films that had been made of his longer work before reading the books. (That was how we rolled in the 70s, yo.) Films like The Omega Man and The Incredible Shrinking Man were enjoyable in their own campy ways. They weren’t great works of art but they were fun. The Legend of Hell House was a fair adaptation of the frankly terrifying book of the same name–except the movie managed to be even creepier in the way that only 1970s ghost movies can be. As for the film Robin Williams made of What Dreams May Come . . . well, after having finally read the book, let’s just say the film didn’t quite measure up. I read I Am Legend for the first time around the time the Will Smith film came out (never saw it, not planning to) and thought it one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read.
I admit I haven’t read The Incredible Shrinking Man yet, either, although it sits on my shelf. That book is a big deal, or became a big deal once I found out that Scott Carey was a stand in for Matheson’s father who lost his job and his confidence some time in middle age. That hits a little close to home.
Then there are books like The Path. I read that one years ago, right after reading What Dreams may Come . . . which, Matheson swore in the acknowledgements, was written purely from research except for the characters. I’m still not sure if it’s meant to be fiction or not.
If you’re a good enough story teller, then the science doesn’t really matter. Richard Matheson was. He will be missed.