Richard Matheson, an influential writer of macabre screenplays, novels and short stories who captured the paranoia of the post-World War II era in works such as “Duel,” “The Shrinking Man,” “I Am Legend” and one of the best “Twilight Zone” episodes ever made, died Sunday at his home in Calabasas, Calif. He was 87.
The Writers Guild of America, West, announced the death but did not disclose a cause.
Matheson, a self-described specialist in the “offbeat,” was one of the most prolific horror and science-fiction authors of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and many of his stories were adapted for movies and television. Stephen King, Anne Rice and Ray Bradbury cited Matheson as an inspiration for their writing.
His best works were economically told, with ripples of subtle tension building to a riveting finale. His plots often ventured into the supernatural, but the suspense was grounded in the essential frailties he observed in real people.
Two of his most anthologized works were “Born of Man and Woman” (1950), about a mutant child chained in the cellar of a young couple’s home, and “The Prey” (1969), about a murderous Zuni doll hunting down a woman in her New York apartment.
Matheson set himself apart from many science-fiction and horror writers of a previous generation by examining the anxieties of the modern age, which often played out in Darwinian struggles.
“The Shrinking Man,” published in 1956 and filmed the next year as “The Incredible Shrinking Man” with actor Grant Williams, featured a handsome suburbanite who gets one-seventh of an inch smaller every day because of exposure to radiation. His confidence and masculinity are tested to the point where everyday surroundings, including the pet cat, become mortal threats.
Steven Spielberg, a devotee of Matheson’s work, first gained wide acclaim as a director with his 1971 made-for-television movie of the author’s short story “Duel.” The Spielberg version starred Dennis Weaver as a California businessman on a road trip who is drawn into a battle to the death by a malevolent tank truck.
Matheson said the idea for the “Duel” plot came to him after being “traumatized” by a tailgating truck. He recalled it so vividly because it happened on the day of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Isolation and psychological distress were among the recurring themes in Matheson’s writing. As a result, he became one of the most frequent contributors to Rod Serling’s television series “The Twilight Zone” in the late 1950s and early 1960s and in later years for Serling’s anthology series “Night Gallery.”
Matheson’s 1963 “Twilight Zone” teleplay for “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” starring William Shatner as a terrified airplane passenger who is convinced that a monster is trying to shear off the wings, is widely regarded as one of the defining episodes. The story was later included in “Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1983).
The idea developed, unsurprisingly, on an airplane ride. Matheson told an interviewer with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation that “I looked out and there was all these fluffy clouds, and I thought, gee, what if I saw a guy skiing across that like it was snow because it looked like snow.
“But when I thought it over, that’s not very scary, so I turned it into a gremlin out on the wing of the airplane.”
Movies, which so often used his material, were a frequent source of Matheson’s inspiration. His first horror novel, “I Am Legend” (1954), which concerned a plague that has turned virtually everyone but the narrator into a vampire, derived from Matheson’s memories of the 1931 Bela Lugosi film “Dracula.”
“It occurred to me that if one vampire was scary, a whole world populated by vampires would be really scary,” he often said.
The book was filmed several times, initially in 1964 as a low-budget thriller with Vincent Price called “The Last Man on Earth” and again in 1971 with Charlton Heston under the title “The Omega Man.” Will Smith’s 2007 version reverted to Matheson’s original title.
“I Am Legend” was a basis for director-writer George Romero’s 1968 zombie film “Night of the Living Dead.” Matheson called it an homage to his original story. “Homage,” he quipped, “means I can make the picture and I don’t have to pay you for your book.”
Richard Burton Matheson was born Feb. 20, 1926, in Allendale, N.J., to Norwegian immigrants. He was 8 when his parents separated, and he grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his mother, a Christian Scientist whom he described as “very distrustful of the outside world.”
At a young age, he devoured books and began writing short stories. One of his earliest forays into horror featured birds pecking on schoolyard bullies.
After Army service in World War II, he graduated in 1949 from the University of Missouri with a journalism degree and settled in Southern California with an ambition to write for the movies.
In 1952, he married Ruth Ann Woodson. Besides his wife, survivors include four children.
His screenplay for “The Incredible Shrinking Man” earned Matheson a prestigious Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation with director Jack Arnold. Matheson also collaborated with the low-budget auteur Roger Corman on adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe thrillers starring Vincent Price — “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1960), “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1961) and “The Raven” (1963).
In a wide-ranging career, Matheson’s output included westerns such as “Journal of the Gun Years” (1991) as well as a well-received World War II novel, “The Beardless Warriors” (1960). His book “Bid Time Return,” published in 1975, became the popular, time-traveling romance movie “Somewhere in Time” (1980), starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.
Matheson was also drawn to metaphysical themes in fiction such as “A Stir of Echoes” (1958) and “What Dreams May Come” (1978), both of which were turned into movies.
As much as he disliked being pigeonholed as a horror and science-fiction writer, Matheson was resoundingly successful at it. And he was unabashedly opinionated on what made it good.
Stories drenched in blood and gore were cheap shortcuts, he said. He preferred structuring his work around rising dread, allowing the slowly revealed desires and vulnerabilities of his characters to guide the story.
One of his most cited was “Button, Button,” in which a couple is offered $50,000 to push the button on a gadget — in return, however, a stranger is killed. The story, first published in Playboy in 1970, was made into a 2009 feature film, “The Box,” starring Cameron Diaz.
“The typical Richard Matheson story is where a husband and wife are sitting down to have coffee and cake when something strange pops out of the sugar bowl,” Matheson once said. “I just think that people identify with fantasy more if you can get the story closer to their daily lives.”The Associated Press
Richard Matheson was a prolific writer of the “offbeat” and influenced a generation of writers, including Stephen King.