The Mighty Matheson

The Shores of Space by Richard Matheson, containing “Being,” “Pattern For Survival,” “Steel,” “The Test,” “Clothes Make The Man,” “Blood Son,” “Trespass,” “When Day Is Dun,” “The Curious Child,” “The Funeral,” “The Last Day,” “Little Girl Lost,” and “The Doll That Does Everything” (1957): Thanks to his own television and movie work, and adaptations of his stories for those media by him and others, and all the parodies and homages and outright steals of his ideas by the makers of movies and TV shows, Richard Matheson has become one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century when it comes to popular culture. And he’s still alive. It’s a remarkable career, but it all started with the printed page, and an astonishing and prolific run of stories and novels in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, a time period from which this collection hails.

I suppose Matheson’s closest ‘lookalike’ is Robert Bloch, about ten years older but with a similar pedigree in several media. Bloch’s most famous achievement was writing the novel from which Alfred Hitchcock adapted Psycho. Matheson’s biggest moment is a bit harder to pin down. The panicky airline passenger played by William Shatner in the Twilight Zone series and John Lithgow in the 1983 TZ movie? That’s Matheson’s creation. Recent movies based in whole or in part on Matheson’s stories and novels include I am Legend, Real Steel, and The Box.

His novella “Duel” supplied pretty much a shot-by-shot blueprint for his own screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s TV-movie breakthrough of the same name; his story “Little Girl Lost”, adapted for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, supplied Spielberg’s Poltergeist with its girl who vanished in her own living room. His novel The Shrinking Man spawned two adaptations; the novel I am Legend spawned three official ones and at least one acknowledged unofficial one (Night of the Living Dead) making Matheson the grandfather of the entire zombie genre and of the scientifically plausible vampire sub-genre).

The stories here show Matheson in solid, genre-crossing form. Science-fictional horror occurs in “Being” and “Trespass”; nuclear apocalypse spawns both satire (“When Day is Dun”, “Pattern for Survival”) and elegy (“The Last Day”); at least four stories here would be adapted at least once for television and/or movies (“Steel”, “Blood Son” (itself suggesting an unacknowledged source for George Romero’s vampire film Martin), “The Funeral” and “Little Girl Lost.”

Matheson established his plain prose style, shot through with startling images and turns of phrase, pretty early, but it was his ability to find new horrors, and new combinations of horrors, thrills and genre concepts, that made him so invaluable — he helped firmly establish the American supernatural tale both in terms of pure science fiction and in terms of finding new ways to present old horrors such as vampires and werewolves and haunted houses. And he could be funny, as he is here in “When Day is Dun”, “Pattern For Survival” and “The Funeral.” A brilliant, influential writer caught at the prolific beginning of a half-century career. Highly recommended.

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