Richard Matheson is not quite a household name, but guaranteed you’ve heard of his work. He has written some of the most memorable scripts for television and movies of the mid-twentieth century, particularly for the Roger Corman/AIP “Poe Cycle” of films starring Vincent Price and the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” featuring William Shatner. You might also remember his novel I Am Legend, also turned into a film called The Last Man on Earth which served as the inspiration for George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. While it is unlikely you can name five of his short stories off the top of your head, his legacy is everywhere, in The Walking Dead to Jordan Peele’s remake of The Twilight Zone. Without Matheson, we wouldn’t have some of the biggest subgenres of science fiction and horror.
Matheson was born in Allendale, New Jersey. After his parents divorced when he was eight years old, he went to live with his mother in Brooklyn, New York. As a child, he fell in love with Tod Browning’s Dracula and the novels of Kenneth Roberts, a historical fiction writer, some of the earliest known influences on his writing. After graduating from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1939, he served in the army during World War II, which served as the basis for his 1960 novel The Beardless Warriors. After the army, he earned his BA at the University of Missouri.
Before Matheson moved to California in 1949, he had unsuccessfully published his first novel at twenty-three, Hunger and Thirst, which his agent told him was unpublishable due to its length. Matheson put the manuscript in his drawer, where it would stay until it was finally published much later in his career. However, his short story “Born of Man and Woman” published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1950 garnered him some attention. He started regularly publishing short stories, including “Third from the Sun” (later adapted into a Twilight Zone episode) and “Duel” (which later became a TV movie in 1971). He didn’t give up on writing novels, in fact he joined a group of writers in his new home of Los Angeles who made sure of that.
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The Sorcerers or “The Group” was founded in 1946 when a seventeen-year-old Charles Beaumont introduced himself to a twenty-six-year-old Ray Bradbury at a bookstore in Los Angeles. Bradbury had already made a name for himself in the fantasy and horror genres but was still struggling to break even on the stories he was selling to pulp magazines. Once the group was formed, Bradbury went on to publish his first book (Dark Carnival, 1947) and launch his career in radio (Suspense), movies (It Came from Outer Space), and as a literary giant (The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451). Bradbury started mentoring Beaumont in his basement in the early 1950s and the group was born, with Beaumont recruiting other writers he encountered in Los Angeles. The “core group” consisted of Bradbury, Beaumont, William F. Nolan, John Tomerlin, Chad Oliver, and Richard Matheson.
Matheson met Beaumont in 1951 and the two immediately had a close relationship, spurring each other’s creativity and often paralleling each other in their careers. They both broke into professional writing at the same time, and worked on similar projects for TV and film simultaneously. They shared a “friendly” rivalry where they were competitive, but ultimately cheered each other’s successes. The main difference between Matheson and Beaumont was, however, their approach to life. Matheson was a family man, he married Ruth Ann Woodson in 1952 and together they had four children. Beaumont, however, was wild and impulsive, frequently showing up at group members’ houses and inviting them on impulsive journeys. Matheson would attend the group meetings at Bradbury’s house, but excused himself from some of the wilder jaunts organised by Beaumont.
In 1954, Matheson’s third novel would transcend the genres of both science fiction and horror forever. The first of its kind, I Am Legend was a post-apocalyptic vision in which hero Robert Neville is the sole survivor of a global vampirism pandemic. The book combined the ordinary Gothic vampire lore with a brand new, scientific twist: the idea that vampirism could be created by a mass infection versus the sole acts of a supernatural creature. In fact, Matheson’s vampires bear little resemblance to those of John William Polidori or even Bram Stoker. Their aversion to sunlight and garlic is explained almost exclusively in medical and scientific terms versus religious or metaphysical. In this way, they are closer to Romero’s zombies that came ten years later. In fact, the way the novel is structured provided the basis for every zombie film that came after it: the lone survivor of a deadly widespread infection searches for others to maintain his survival (and his sanity); the survivor is routinely harassed by members of the infected who gather right outside his door, threatening his safety; the origin of the pandemic is scientific, not supernatural, in origin; and those the survivor encounters may be allies, but are highly suspect.
However, unlike the subsequent film adaptations and the future zombie genre, the novel heavily emphasised that Neville’s outlier status in the dawn of a new race of vampires made clinging to his humanity obsolete. Whereas in films like Dawn of the Dead and Land of the Dead, even if definitions of humanity and ethics are called into question, usually one’s identification as a human being is the last thing to go. Thus, I Am Legend does reflect the tradition of the vampire story in which humanity is tainted through the blood and one’s identity is confronted, even if it is a far cry from the vampire tales of the European Gothic tradition.
While the book received mixed critical reception in its day (fellow science fiction writer Damon Knight said “The book is full of good ideas, every other one of which is immediately dropped and kicked out of sight.”), it would inspire several film adaptations. The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price, was probably the most straightforward of them all (even the Will Smith adaptation from 2007 under the same title took a few creative liberties that deviated from the novel). The Last Man on Earth was shot on location in Rome, adding to the uncanny scenery of a film that seemed to suggest that it took place somewhere in the United States. The Omega Man is another adaptation, in which Charlton Heston plays an army colonel/scientist up against a plague of nocturnal mutants. Night of the Living Dead bears little resemblance to the original story in terms of characters (and its creatures), but the plot is similar in that it features a group of lone survivors against a deadly pandemic who must survive the night without turning on each other. The film’s climactic scene, in which the hero named Ben (Duane Jones) is shot by police also echoed the racialised violence against civil rights organisers (Martin Luther King Jr. was shot the day of the film’s release), adding another layer of historical importance.
Even as Matheson’s original story changed significantly as the zombie tale was born, his legacy ushered in an era of works that transcended the limits of genre. The idea of monsters locked away in castles or caves began to wane as a new generation of horrors lay waiting just around the corner.
Kellye McBride is a freelance writer and editor who has very complex ideas about the things that go bump in the night. When she’s not seeking out the dark forces and joining their hellish crusade, you can find her on Twitter at @kellyemmcbride or on her website, kellyemcbrideediting.com.