by Derek Johnson
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]
We lost the writer who was, arguably, the most influential in modern pop culture. A writer whose influence was so pervasive that it touched generations of audiences, despite his invisibility to many of those audience members. I speak of Richard Matheson, whose name is legend among many science fiction and fantasy fans, but who is, alas, almost unknown outside of genre circles.
The name, that is. The work is a different matter.
I was 12 years old when I first encountered Matheson's work. I had little to do during the summer of 1980, aside from read whatever books I might have picked up at the local branch of the Houston library and, on occasion, catch something on television -- something that I tried seldom to do during the weekdays. These were the days before cables snaked between the walls of my family's condominium to provide us with more than a hundred channels, which probably was to my benefit. Had cable been available, I'm certain I would have wound up glued to the flickering screen of my 12-inch black-and-white television set, absorbed in syndicated sitcoms broadcast from Chicago to Atlanta.
This was a Saturday, however, and I was just about to turn off my set after goggling slack-jawed as Godzilla and Mothra finished an epic battle that thoroughly demolished Tokyo yet again. As I touched the dial, the intro music to a show I had never seen before played eerily from the speaker. "You're traveling through another dimension…" an unseen announcer intoned against a starry backdrop. Okay, I thought, this certainly seems different.
What followed, of course, was The Twilight Zone, the classic Rod Serling series. I had never seen an episode, and, as fate would have it, it was an episode I would never forget: "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," directed by Richard Donner (I grinned: the guy who directed Superman: The Movie was going to do a television show? Fantastic!), written by Matheson, and starring William Shatner. (Captain Kirk?! Wow!)
The episode, about a man released from a mental hospital who sees something on the wing of an airplane, filled me with a kind of awe, terror, and wonder that, to this day, has no equal.
I didn't know Matheson's name, but I followed The Twilight Zone with a religious fervor that came close to matching my love of Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, to which I was devoted as early as age six. I loved many of the episodes, but it happened that the ones that stood out were the ones involving Matheson: the uneasy, anxious "Third from the Sun," in which a family attempts to commandeer a spaceship to escape their doomed planet; the terrifying "Little Girl Lost," in which a man's daughter falls through a door into another dimension (located, for some odd reason, in her bedroom); and "Steel," about robots duking it out in a boxing match. Granted, I would not fully dunk my head into the skiffy baptismal waters until two years later, but this anthology show fueled my imagination like no other.
When I moved just outside of the Houston area I made a friend who was an equally ardent fan of the series, and of Matheson in particular. I remember having him over to our house one evening, the two of us blazed to the eyeballs on coffee as we discussed monster movies and watched The Omega Man, based on Matheson's landmark novel I Am Legend.
I would read it sometime later, after Stephen King stated in his book Danse Macabre that Matheson made him the writer he was. Soon after I read The Shrinking Man (and happened to catch the movie about a month later, when a VHS copy hit the shelves of one of the local video stores). And A Stir of Echoes, and all three volumes of his Shock! series.
And there was Hell House. Shirley Jackson might have written the definitive haunted house novel with The Haunting of Hill House, and Stephen King might have made a mint off of The Shining, but Matheson's novel managed to scare in a way that the others never quite managed. The movie adaptation remains a terrifying experience.
And Somewhere in Time. Yes, it borrowed heavily from Jack Finney's Time and Again, but Matheson's air of wistful romanticism tinged with melancholy placed it in a league all its own, even in the compelling (if occasionally sappy) film version starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.
Then, too, there was his afterlife novel What Dreams May Come -- among my least favorite, but it drew an ardent following when it was adapted for the screen, with Robin Williams as a somewhat dubious Matheson protagonist. I never quite warmed to the adaptation, either, though I later dated a woman who cited it as among her favorites.
Shortly before I left Houston to go to college in Austin, I watched Steven Spielberg's Duel on television, finding myself as rapt in front of the 24-inch color screen as I was when I first saw "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet."
I couldn't say I was a die-hard Matheson fan, but I knew his work, and I knew its power. And, as I grew older, I found him an easy point of reference for those who knew nothing about genre. When a friend of mine (a proponent of "great literature" who insisted I read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev, despite the fact that I had read Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, and Fathers and Sons years before) rolled his eyes at the ugly cover of Hell House, and insisted that I read something a little heavier, I pointed out that Matheson wrote not only the greatest of the Twilight Zone episodes, but also the works that inspired The Omega Man, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and Duel, he opened and closed his mouth in shock, looking like an escapee from Innsmouth suddenly out of water.
It took me a couple of years after I decided to step away from genre for a bit to really understand how pervasive Matheson was in popular culture. George Romero had wanted to film I Am Legend in the 1960s; when he couldn't get the rights, he changed the monsters from vampires to ghouls and made Night of the Living Dead, the movie which kicked off the zombie in popular culture, and the work that, without which, the zombie craze as we know it wouldn't exist. Any time I boarded a plane, I could see, in the faces of anxious passengers, the same look on William Shatner's face. I remember everybody talking about M. Night Shayamalan's The Sixth Sense when it came out, and how disappointed I was when I saw it, finding it to be an extended Twilight Zone episode, and somewhat similar to Matheson's A Stir of Echoes…and then suddenly seeing an adaptation of A Stir of Echoes a few weeks later. Playing it as a double feature with my ex-wife a year later made for an interesting evening of discussion.
More than anybody, Matheson got the fears of the twentieth century, and could incorporate them into compelling work regardless of media. The terrors of ordinary life in suburbia? Matheson addressed it in "The Distributor." Small towns losing their identity as the outside world encroaches? Matheson got the dread and unease in "The Children of Noah." When I showed them to my "great literature" friend, he commented on their quality, and how much they read like something by Stephen King. "The difference is," I replied, "without Matheson, Stephen King wouldn't exist." His imaginative reach was that long. Even as he published stories in Omni, even as he moved from science fiction and fantasy to straight thrillers and westerns, you could hear his distinctive voice (despite the transparent prose; the better to adapt to the screen), and his stories could still enthrall.
And yet few knew his name. Even as I Am Legend headed to the screen with a cocky Will Smith replacing a cocksure Charlton Heston, and I talked to people eager to catch a showing, the name Matheson drew blank stares. And why wouldn't it? Did any of them really care that it was based on some novel nobody really remembers…if by "nobody," they mean people so devoted to the work that they can quote whole chapters?
But mention The Twilight Zone to them, and if they know of no other episode, they remember "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." Or mention Duel and see the glimmer dance in their eyes. Or just speak the title of The Incredible Shrinking Man and hear them gush about Grant Williams using a needle as a spear as he battles a giant spider.
Immortal work, fit for one whose name deserves to be legend.
Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His first novel, the erotic thriller, Murder, Most Likely, written in collaboration with SammyJo Hunt, is forthcoming from Rebel Ink Press. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.
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