The Curmudgeon


Saturday, June 29, 2013

Richard Matheson

A very long time ago now, I saw a film on late-night television, about the last survivor of a global biological war. Empty cities full of skeletal corpses were not quite the cliché they have become amid the present banalisation of Armageddon; and I was much impressed. The ending was also much more downbeat than I was used to at the time, although it was positively saccharine compared with the savage irony of the source novel. The film was called The Omega Man, and the source novel was Richard Matheson's I Am Legend.

Of course I had to have it; but the internet was some decades away, and I had to make do with haunting second-hand stalls at Preston market. It was there that, before the prize came my way, I discovered several Matheson story collections. I think the first I found was Shock 3, wherein I was shocked to discover a number of stories which were not shocking at all. Most of them, I realised as I accumulated more books, were something rather better.

Matheson was a pioneer of science fiction that focused on ordinary lives rather than on superheroes and spacemen: "The Test" is a poignant tale about the emotional cost of ageing and of one possible solution to the problem; "Steel", about a future in which the sport of boxing has been roboticised, focuses on a couple of down-at-heel losers hauling an outdated model around the country in the deluded hope that good old-fashioned machinery will get them their big break. In "Full Circle" a reporter decides to expose his society's mistreatment of an ethnic minority, with results that haven't dated a bit.

Matheson varied his style with great virtuosity to suit whatever material he was writing. He was a craftsmanlike and commercially successful screenwriter, and his fiction has the good old-fashioned screenwriter's virtues of clarity and concision; but his stories and novels never read as though they are mere anticipations of movie contracts or excuses for upcoming TV episodes. He pared his prose to the bone in "Blood Son", the stark and blackly funny story of a boy who wants to be a vampire; he inflated it ludicrously for comic tales like "'Tis the Season to be Jelly", about decrepit mutant hillbillies in a disintegrating world; and "The Doll That Does Everything", in which an artistically inclined couple find a modern and convenient way to quiet their disruptive offspring. "Witch War" and "Dance of the Dead" which, like I Am Legend, apply traditional terrors to future-war scenarios, are intense, imagistic, gruesome and sardonic.

He wrote tales of paranoiac horror featuring amnesiacs ("The Curious Child", a riveting story marred only by an unconvincing resolution) and disappearances ("Disappearing Act", which is all the better for having no real resolution at all). "The Distributor" is an ambiguous and thoroughly disturbing tale about the destruction of a neighbourhood; Ramsey Campbell's "A Street Was Chosen" uses the same premise, but the horror in Campbell's story is impersonal and bureaucratic, while that in Matheson's is personal and vengeful. He wrote about the end of the world, with ordinary families ("Descent" and "The Last Day", both convincingly bleak) and demented sole survivors (notably a pulp science fiction writer in "Pattern for Survival"). He wrote some of the most poignant genre love stories outside the work of Theodore Sturgeon; he also wrote "Lover When You're Near Me", a superb and repulsive tale of sexual obsession. Bid Time Return concerns a man who falls for a Victorian actress and wills himself back in time to be with her; it was filmed, rather well, as Somewhere in Time. "Return", an earlier story about a time-travelling scientist, gains emotional power because of the protagonist's doomed love for his wife.

Matheson stated in the introduction to What Dreams May Come that its depiction of the afterlife was factual in every respect save that of the characters and their relationships; whatever one may think of that (and I'm not sure I was terribly convinced even as a teenager), the characters and their relationships are sufficiently well depicted to make the book a touching supernatural adventure story. The nature of the afterlife is also a theme of Hell House, in which scientific and spiritual points of view come into conflict during an investigation of a notoriously haunted mansion. The film adaptation, The Legend of Hell House, lacks the book's explicit sexuality, but retains its convincing characters, gloomy atmospherics and clever resolution.

Matheson is justly renowned for his work in the horror, science fiction and suspense fields (and for his lack of scruple about genre boundaries); but he was clearly never a man to dig a rut and stay there. Among the aforementioned comic tales is "The Splendid Source", a mock detective story about a rich young eccentric who becomes obsessed with discovering the origin of off-colour jokes. The Beardless Warriors is a Second World War novel about teenage soldiers, depicting a week of intense combat both on the battlefield and inside its unhappy hero. Now You See It, aptly dedicated to Robert Bloch, is a demented locked-room mystery set in the home of a second-generation stage magician and narrated with black wit and considerable relish by a paralysed stroke victim, "your servant, Mr Vegetable".

One of the four Shock collections featured "Go West, Young Man", a Western with a non-supernatural but decidedly chilling twist. During the 1990s Matheson turned to writing Western novels, and produced Journal of the Gun Years and The Memoirs of Wild Bill Hickock, revisionist demolitions of the gunfighter-hero myth; The Gunfight, an archetypal tragedy of masculine pride, social nastiness and family values; and Shadow on the Sun, about an Indian agent who comes up against the supernatural.

I could go on and on. There can be few writers of any stripe who have done so many different things so well.


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