Richard Matheson, author, screenplay writer, and science fiction legend, dies at age 87

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Image Credit: Xavier ROSSI/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

It is ironic that one of the books author Richard Matheson, who has died at the age of 87 according to publisher Tor/Forge, is best known for is 1956’s The Shrinking Man. While that novel related the tale of a person diminishing away to virtually nothing, Matheson’s influence on the science fiction genre continues to grow more than a half century after the book’s publication. Just last week saw the release of World War Z, a film which owes a huge debt to George A. Romero’s classic 1968 film Night of the Living Dead and hence to Matheson’s similarly revered 1954 tome I Am Legend, to which Romero paid extremely generous homage in his film. Maybe too generous, according to Matheson himself. In 2007, the Allendale, N.J.-born writer told me with a chuckle about the time he met Romero for lunch. “The first thing he said to me, putting his arms up as if I was abut to strike him, [was], ‘Didn’t make any money from Night of the Living Dead,'” Matheson recalled. “‘Homage’ means I get to steal you work. He’s a nice guy, though. I don’t harbor any animosity toward him.” (Romero later confirmed this story:  “I confessed to him that I basically ripped the idea off from I Am Legend. He forgave me because we didn’t make any money. He said, ‘Well, as long as you didn’t get rich, it’s okay.’”)

Of course, I Am Legend — the groundbreaking tale of a pandemic’s sole survivor and his battles against the vampiric undead — has been officially adapted to the screen on several occasions, most recently in 2007 with Will Smith in the lead. The Shrinking Man too was made into a movie as 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man, for which Matheson wrote the screenplay. The films Real Steel, What Dreams May Come, Stir of Echoes, and The Box were all also based on Matheson tales while his own scripts included several episodes of the original Twilight Zone show, including the unforgettable, William Shatner-starring Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, and Steven Spielberg’s Duel. Matheson relished tackling different novel genres, notably the Western, and even penned a children’s book, Abu and the 7 Marvels. But it was as a writer of highly disturbing, yet somehow highly believable, science fiction that Matheson really had an impact on pop culture and on other authors. Stephen King once wrote, “Without Richard Matheson I wouldn’t be around.” (King dedicated his 2006 novel Cell — in many ways, an update of I Am legend and Night of the Living Dead — to Matheson and Romero.)

“I wrote about real people and real circumstances and real neighborhoods,” Matheson told me. “There was no crypt or castles or H.P. Lovecraft-type environments. They were just about normal people who had something bizarre happening to them in the neighborhood. I could never write about strange kingdoms. I could never do Harry Potter or anything like that. Even when I did science-fiction I didn’t write about foreign planets and distant futures. I certainly never did fantasies about trolls living under bridges. I had to write about realistic circumstances. That’s the way my brain works. And I think that gave me a sort of place in the field.”

Read more:
Richard Matheson: An Author You Can’t Refuse
‘Night of the Living Dead': How a 42-year-old zombie movie refuses to die
‘Pariah’ author Bob Fingerman reveals his five favorite tomes of terror

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