This Day In Literary History
On February 20th, 1926, the famous American writer Richard Matheson was born in Allendale, New Jersey. Born to Norwegian immigrant parents, he would grow up in Brooklyn, New York.
In 1943, after graduating from high school, he joined the military and served as an infantry soldier during World War II. After the war ended, Matheson enrolled at the University of Missouri, where he earned a degree in journalism.
His first published short story, Born of Man and Woman, appeared in 1950, in an issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The story is narrated in broken English by the grotesque mutant eight-year-old son of a normal couple.
The "normal" parents keep their son chained in the cellar and beat him frequently. When the mutant boy breaks the rules and sneaks upstairs to spy on his parents, he discovers that he has a normal little sister whom he never met or knew existed.
Encouraged by his first sale, Matheson moved to California, hoping to become a professional writer. There, he married his girlfriend, Ruth Ann Woodson. They had four children, three of whom (Chris, Ali, and Richard Christian Matheson) would become writers.
Richard Matheson's first novel, Someone is Bleeding, was published in 1953, but his third novel, I Am Legend (1954), made his name as a writer. In it, a man named Robert Neville finds that he is apparently the last man left on Earth.
A pandemic quickly wiped out the rest of the world's population, but Neville is immune for some reason. He soon discovers that he is not alone; the world is still inhabited by the infected - who have become vampires that crave his blood.
The disease has mutated and the vampires can now spend brief periods of time during the day. After overcoming alcoholism and depression, Neville tries to find a cure for the disease before the vampires become indestructible.
I Am Legend would be adapted three times as a feature film: The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price, The Omega Man (1971) starring Charlton Heston, and I Am Legend (2007) starring Will Smith as Robert Neville.
Matheson's classic 1956 novel, The Shrinking Man, told the story of Scott Carey, a man exposed to radiation after accidentally ingesting an insecticide. The combination of the two alters Carey's biochemical structure, causing him to shrink in size a little every day.
Most of the story finds Carey at only seven inches tall. Ordinary small objects and creatures become terrifying. As he keeps shrinking, Carey soon realizes that he won't shrink to death, as he'd feared. Instead, he'll keep shrinking to the size of an atom.
The Shrinking Man is actually a scathing satire of 1950s white middle class manhood. When Scott Carey shrinks to doll size, he finds that he is no longer the man of the house. Now, his wife and children are intimidating him for a change - a huge blow to his ego and masculinity.
The Shrinking Man would be adapted by the author himself as the cult classic film, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). It would also be adapted as The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), a comic fantasy about the dangers of industrial chemicals and deceptive advertising.
Lily Tomlin starred as an average housewife and mother whose exposure to chemicals in everything from laundry detergents to foods, combined with her unique body chemistry, causes her to shrink a little every day. When she reaches doll size, she becomes a media sensation.
In 1958, Matheson published A Stir of Echoes, a supernatural horror novel about a mild-mannered fellow, Tom Wallace, who is hypnotized at a party by his brother-in-law. Wallace doubts the effectiveness of hypnosis until a post-hypnotic suggestion unlocks formidable psychic powers within him.
Suddenly able to read minds and predict the future, Tom's life plunges into a downward spiral. Then, the spirit of a murder victim begins stalking him, desperately searching for closure. This memorable novel would be adapted as the horror film Stir of Echoes in 1999.
Richard Matheson's success as a novelist and short story writer got him noticed by television. He would write fourteen episodes of the classic TV series, The Twilight Zone (1959-64). His memorable episodes include the classic Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.
In this episode, an aerophobic salesman (William Shatner) notices something terrifying during his flight - a gremlin clinging to the plane's wing, trying to destroy the aircraft. Is it real or all in his mind?
Another great Twilight Zone episode Matheson wrote was Little Girl Lost. In it, a little girl falls out of her bed in the middle of the night and tumbles through a gateway into another dimension. Her father must attempt a daring rescue before the door closes forever.
Matheson and his close friend, writer Charles Beaumont, who also wrote for The Twilight Zone, belonged to the Southern California Writing Group in the 1950s and 60s. Other members included Ray Bradbury, William F. Nolan, Jerry Sohl, and George Clayton Johnson.
In the 1970s, Matheson wrote the screenplays for two TV movies, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, which were based on a horror novel by Jeff Rice called The Kolchak Papers. The popular movies would spawn the short lived cult classic TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75).
The first of Matheson's TV movies, The Night Stalker, received record ratings for a TV movie. Darren McGavin starred as Carl Kolchak, a shrewd, obnoxious, wisecracking newspaper reporter covering a series of bizarre murders in Las Vegas.
All of the victims were completely drained of their blood. The police suspect a psychotic killer, but Kolchak's investigation leads him to something more terrifying - a vampire. After Kolchak destroys the vampire, the police launch a cover-up and run him out of town.
The sequel, The Night Stangler (1973), finds Kolchak in Seattle, uncovering another supernatural mystery - identical series of murders that have occurred every 21 years since 1931. The killer is on the prowl again, draining his victims of their blood.
This time, instead of a vampire, the culprit is a former Civil War surgeon who discovered an elixir of life that grants him immortality. The formula must be taken every 21 years and requires a quantity of human blood from unwilling donors.
Richard Matheson wrote over two dozen novels and numerous short stories, as well as film and TV screenplays. He won several awards and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010. His final novel, Generations, was published in 2012. He died in 2013 at the age of 87.
Quote Of The Day
"Life is a risk; so is writing. You have to love it." - Richard Matheson
Today's video features a Writers Guild Foundation interview with Richard Matheson. Enjoy!