By Kevin M. Brettauer
The watchman, he lay dreaming
The damage had been done
He dreamed the Titanic was sinking
And he tried to tell someone.
– Bob Dylan, “Tempest”
No, that’s not a pun about the vampiric affliction that created the hordes of undead in “I Am Legend,” his most famous novel, but merely a reference to the fact that once someone, usually another fan, handed you one of his novels, scripts or short stories, you wouldn’t be able to stop reading everything he’d ever thought up. Works like “A Stir of Echoes,” “What Dreams May Come,” “Bid Time Return,” and “The Shrinking Man” have earned their spots in the literary pantheon alongside the works of other great science fiction writers of the 20th century, including Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut, Harlan Ellison, Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and Ursula K. LeGuin.
His influence is well-noted. Collaborators who sought him out included Gene Roddenberry, Roger Corman, and Rod Serling. Film and television stars from the classic (Buster Keaton, Christopher Reeve, Boris Karloff, and Agnes Moorehead, among many others) to the contemporary (Hugh Jackman, Kevin Bacon, and Robin Williams, for starters) could oftentimes thank him for more than or two roles in their resumes.
Without his varied works, Anne Rice and Steven Spielbergs could have been nobodies. Matheson’s yarn “A Dress of White Silk” helped spark Rice’s fascination with vampires, eventually resulting in many notable works, including “An Interview with the Vampire,” which was later adapted into a Tom Cruise vehicle. Matheson’s short story “Duel”, which he adapted into a teleplay, was the directorial debut of then-greenthumb Spielberg, who, of course, has contributed a continuous stream of classics to the cinema world.
George A. Romero may not have been inspired to forever alter both horror films and zombie storytelling (especially as a vehicle for social commentary) if it were not for “I Am Legend.” Because of that, we have been gifted with such classic films as “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead,” a tradition continued today in Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead,” the novel “World War Z” by Max Brooks, and the yet-to-be-completed cinematic trilogy that started with Danny Boyle’s now-classic “28 Days Later.”
Both Romero and Matheson, in turn, inspired Stephen King, the author of “The Dark Tower” cycle, “Cujo,” “The Dead Zone,” “The Mist,” “Carrie” and literally dozens of others (including the very Matheson-infused short tale “The End of the Whole Mess”). King’s 2006 novel “Cell” was dedicated to Matheson, and may or may not have inspired the following year’s cult film “The Signal.” Film director Richard Kelly, the auteur behind “Donnie Darko” and the man who adapted Matheson’s “Button, Button” into the 2009 film “The Box” has cited both King and Matheson as critical influences on both his formative years and career.
Edgar Wright, noted genre aficionado and himself the accomplished director of “Hot Fuzz” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” recently expressed (via Twitter) his thanks for Matheson’s work following the writer’s passing, and it’s clear that much of Matheson remains in his affectionate Romero parody “Shaun of the Dead,” a theme that looks to be carried over into this year’s upcoming “The World’s End.”
Now, I know it’s unusual to break from journalistic objectivity to wax nostalgic on the passing of an all-time great and undeniable inspiration, but the death of Richard Matheson is perhaps the only appropriate time to evaluate just how critical his legacy is not just to genre fiction, but to the world. I’ve mentioned, over the course of this article, that certain artists’ careers would be impossible or vastly different from what we know them to be if it weren’t for Matheson, and that certain works just plain wouldn’t exist.
As Rod Serling, creator of “The Twilight Zone” (a series for which Matheson wrote 16 episodes in its original incarnation) would probably opine: “Picture, if you will,” a world without Richard Matheson.
This is a world where Spielberg, Anne Rice, George Romero, and Stephen King languish in obscurity, depriving us of “Saving Private Ryan” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “The Vampire Chronicles,” the “Living Dead” cycle, and “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.”
This is a world that never saw William Shatner’s Captain Kirk split into two equal and opposite beings, or saw the same performer grapple with reality whilst trying to convince the passengers on his flight that there was a gremlin on the wing of their plane. This is a world, likely, where what Roger Ebert called the “pseudorealistic” elements of the supernatural “I Am Legend” never leaked into the stories of Ira Levin or William Peter Blatty, leaving a world with perhaps very, very different takes on what we know now as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist.” This is a world where “Alvin and the Chipmunks” took the box office on its opening weekend with no other real competitor, and “Armageddon” was awarded an Oscar for Visual Effects.
And with all these changes? Well, you can say goodbye to every single “evil doppelganger” episode of every television show you’ve ever seen. Say goodbye to all of “Fringe” and large elements of the 2000s reboot of “Battlestar Galactica,” and say goodbye to Jonathan Coulton’s song “Re: Your Brains,” and to video games like “Dead Rising.” The cultural lexicon is now devoid of instantly recognizable phrases like “The power of Christ compels you”, “there’s something on the wing of the plane”, “E.T. phone home”, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra” and “When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth.” You can bid adieu to films like “Pi” (obviously inspired by Matheson’s “Mad House”) and several episodes of “Masters of Horror.” You can say goodbye to that feeling creeping up your spine when, during a long road trip, you keep seeing the same vehicle over and over and begin to grow paranoid. And you’d need more than a few pairs of special sunglasses to watch “They Live,” because it wouldn’t exist anymore.
You can say hello to more fiction and less science in every corner of the science fiction genre. Worldbuilding would be valued less than concept, or not cared about at all. Beloved television programs such as “The X-Files,” “Millennium,” “Supernatural,” “Carnivale,” and their ilk would not have deep roots in the hearts of countless fans worldwide. You could also probably say hello, unfortunately, to a less tolerant world that has learned nothing from an astonishing amount of stories that never existed by an author who never lived to inspire countless others to improve a genre – no, the field of writing – no, the very world was a hold.
It is a butterfly effect, that “bid time return” us to the dark ages before Matheson created his masterpieces, would surely have made the world a darker, more horrifying place.
Thankfully, this is only a world that exists within the confines of the Twilight Zone.
Rest in Peace, Richard Matheson. You were one of the greats, and your legacy will ensure your continued greatness.
“Heaven would never be heaven without you.”