Growing Up in the Twilight Zone Part 3: Richard Matheson

It is impossible for me to think of the Twilight Zone and not have the name of Richard Matheson come to mind. As I said in the first part of this series, the first image ever associated with the Twilight Zone was John Lithgow in the final segment of the 1983 anthology film. It was Nigthmare at 20,000 feet adapted from the classic episode starring William Shatner, which was adapted by Matheson himself from his original short story. All together he wrote 16 episodes of the show, all of them as eclectic as his novels and short stories. He could easily make you laugh, cry, and scare the hell out of you.

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Unlike Rod Serling, Richard Matheson did not grow up in my home town. Yet I have never been able to shake a kind of connection to the man and his work. Not only because he wrote for The Twilight Zone but also because he named Mr. Ray Bradbury as one of his inspirations. In his foreword to the short story collection, “Duel”, Ray Bradbury has a quick anecdote about receiving a letter from a young man who wanted his advice on becoming a writer. Mr. Bradbury told him to read a lot and write every day. It must have worked because that young writer grew up to be a giant amongst us named Richard Matheson. I too derive a great deal of inspiration from Bradbury. He is, in my opinion, the greatest short story writer who ever lived. Matheson being a very close second.

The first name of a writer I had ever known was Stephen King. Before I could read I knew who he was and what kinds of stories he told. My earliest memories of books were of staring at the covers to his paperbacks, my imagination piecing the story together. When I started reading, it was his books I gravitated to. I’d always wanted to tell stories in some fashion, but it was his “Dark Tower” series that showed me all the possibilities of fiction and convinced me I was a writer. To say that Stephen King is an influence would be an insulting understatement. All I have written bears, even to a small extent, his mark. While I’m positive I would be telling stories without ever having read his work, I’m not so sure I’d be writing them. For that, I owe thanks to Matheson. For King has stated, “Without Richard Matheson I wouldn’t be around.”

There is an evident flavor of Matheson in King the moment you read a single line. He wrote about real people in the real world (or at least a relatable world) to which unbelievable events occured. Matheson took horror from the abandoned European castles and brought it into our homes. Much the way King has been famous for.

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I loved Matheson’s writing from the start. When the Will Smith film “I Am Legend” was released, I came across a new edition of it in the local grocery story. After reading the synopsis on the back I realized I knew this story. Yes, it had been filmed twice already, once (and best) as “The Last Man on Earth” starring Vincent Price, and again (not as well, but very entertainingly) as “The Omega Man” starring Charlton Heston, neither of which I had seen at that point. I knew the story because “The Simpsons” parodied it in one of their “Treehouse of Horrors” episodes. I read the first page in the store and bought it seconds later, even though I barely had the money for it. What struck me the most was my immediate placement in the story. There was no wasting time. The story began and I was in it. These were not words in front of me but a window into another world.

Because it was a novella there were a few short stories following it. All of them were as direct and clear as the novella. Some of them had distinct beginnings, middles and endings, while others were macabre slices of lives gone mad. Characters coming across something strange and never fully understanding what they were. He was also the king of the twist ending. You could fool yourself into thinking you’ve got one of his stories pegged – and then the final line will be like being thrown into an icy bath. When you finish a Matheson story, he marks you.

So it was King who showed me the possibilities of fiction, Bradbury who showed me the beauty and poetry of fiction, and Matheson who showed me how to tell a story. I see him as a halfway point between Bradbury and King. He has all the scope of Bradbury without his nostalgic style, and all the detail of King without his verboseness. His stories were blunt and direct. Matheson didn’t fuck around.

Just as each story I’ve published bears the mark of King, it also owes a debt to Matheson. The structure of my work often mirrors his, including a last minute twist to mark you. I try to trim the fat off my prose to ensure it is the events of the story you remember and not the floridity.

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Another great disciple of Bradbury, Matheson, and King is Mr. King’s own son Joe Hill. Locke & Key (a comic series he created) is a mesmerizing title unlike anyhting I’ve ever read. It, in a lot of ways reminds me of Matheson. Mr. Hill’s novels include the legitimately haunting “Heart Shaped Box,” the thrilling and emotional “Horns”, and “N0S4A2” a novel about doorways, and a very bad man with a very bad car. People compare these to his father’s books and I can understand why. They’re supernatural, filled with pop culture references, and kick ass. But he has that leaner and blunt style that Matheson had, and I think that the connection between them is hardly mentioned enough.

Yesterday Richard Matheson died. He left behind a legacy of stories that will never die. I know this because you know his stories. In response to the news of his passing, Neil Gaiman Tweeted, “I never knew Richard Matheson, so have no personal anecdotes. But he was a giant, and YOU KNOW HIS STORIES, even if you think you don’t.” No one could have said it better. Remember, I didn’t know “I Am Legend” before reading it, but I did. Besides “The Simpsons” George A. Romero’s original “Night of the Living Dead” was a direct ripoff (he admitted to it) of the novella.

There are other stories, so many, that you know without knowing you know them. One was even the basis for a “Family Guy” episode. I would list them here but instead invite you to rediscover them yourselves. This is a rabbit hole worth stumbling down. It might be scary but the journey is as rewarding as anything in this short life, and it makes it so much sweeter.

Goodbye, Richard Matheson. You were, and always will be, Legend.

Rich

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One thought on “Growing Up in the Twilight Zone Part 3: Richard Matheson

  1. Having read nearly everything you’ve written, I have to say that this piece is the most like you, if that statement makes sense in any way whatsoever. It reads like you’re speaking instead of trying to write a story. It seems to come from deep within after a long time stewing. Try writing like this more often, it fits you.

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