Last June –the 23rd to be precise– marked the third anniversary of Richard Matheson’s death and, frankly, one gets a bit angry when seeing that time goes by and his name and his influence are still not as widely acknowledged as they should be. Or at least that’s my impression. I might have been a bit naive thinking that his death would start a richardmathesonmania, that the important publishing houses in our country –I mean, the wealthy ones– would finally produce beautiful and chronological editions of his oeuvre. But I don’t want to write from irritation, least of all about someone I admire so much. Richard Matheson has been important to me and many people from my generation basically thanks to two films that marked us for life: The Incredible Shrinking Man and Duel. We saw them on TV when we were kids, and we have seen them again as adults. When you’re a kid they affect you: you step on the shoes of the tiny man who has to fight a giant spider and live in a ridiculous dollhouse. But as an adult you discover new layers, new hidden corners. Seeing the main character making a hook with a needle to be able to climb a huge wooden box acquires a new resonance. Richard Matheson’s true value and power resides in the fact that his fiction, no matter in what format –script, short story, novel–, goes beyond what one expects from the fantastic genre, because in the end what it really talks about are everyday terrors and abstract fears we all have. The ‘master of horror’ cliché often used to refer to him, although true, doesn’t show the whole picture.
Stephen King used to say about him: “Richard Matheson was the first guy I read who was doing something that H. P. Lovecraft hadn’t done. It was no longer Eastern Europe: horror could be at the 7-Eleven in the corner, or on the street. (…) To me as a kid that was like a revelation, it was extremely exciting. It located horror in places I was related to.”
These words might come as shocking, seeing how overexploited that idea is today. After all, isn’t the horror and fantastic genre one of the most pop ever? Was there really a time when horror only took place in foggy London or at a lost castle in the Carpathians? I love King’s reflection, but the best thing about it is that it also serves to understand how Matheson transcended the genres and formats he used. The story of the last survivor on Earth in I Am Legend, confronted to a world of vampires, or the one of a shrinking man, are perfect to expose deeper thoughts, even metaphysical questions that were generally reserved to great thinkers or philosophers. Following King’s reasoning we can also deduce that in order to talk about these ideas or doubts it was no longer necessary being French or German. Isn’t I Am Legend an existential novel exploring to its utmost consequences what lies behind a hopeless life? Isn’t it a story researching the ultimate links to existence that prevents us from giving up and blowing our brains out? What The Shrinking Man is really about is how everyday routines end up overwhelming us and then people and simple objects around us become bigger and bigger until we can no longer manage them, until we feel as small as Scott Carey pulling a pair of heavy scissors.
Richard Matheson took horror to the 7-Eleven, but he was also the pioneer of placing these ideas, these ancestral fears, in an unexpected, and often close, environment. Yes, you can be serious talking about vampires, but also setting the situation at the office, or at home, with stories that question the apparent safety of your living room, equipped with a big television set and air conditioning. Let’s not forget, we’re in sixties and seventies USA: Rock, Elvis, Kennedy, TV, and Warhol have changed the panorama forever. Post-war Europe suddenly seems very far away. You can pose metaphysical dilemmas talking about a man driving a Plymouth on a dusty road.
David Mann, the anti-hero in Duel, is the incarnation of your average man, who takes the car one day and suddenly sees that what should have been a pleasant trip, has turned into his life’s worst nightmare. Why? Simply because the world wanted it thus! Fate and the elements turn against you and you have to accept it. It’s the world vs. you. This is one of the central topics in Richard Matheson’s work. When French critics told Spielberg that his film was an allegory of class struggle in modern society, he denied it: to him it was nothing beyond the cat and mouse game turned images. It could be, but since we never manage to see who’s behind the wheel of that dirty and noisy lorry, it ends up becoming an abstract demon, something like destiny when, for no reason, it’s merciless with us. There’s nothing bad about stories that merely entertain us, but when they have that extra element, they move us in a special way; they touch deeper strings within us. Do you remember Scott before the metallic fabric at the end of The Incredible Shrinking Man? We know that he’ll soon be small enough to go through it, and that’s the real horror.
Pop cinephilia specialist Dr. Insermini published earlier this year the book Richard Matheson. Guía rápida de sus trabajos para cine y TV, an itinerary through the American author’s career as script-writer, which also includes films and series based on his works. The book is as well a report on how the fantastic and horror genre has evolved in the second half of the 20th century, paying special attention to Matheson’s collaborations for TV, from his The Twilight Zone scripts to the TV movies he wrote in the seventies for ABC Movie of the Week.