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Mr. Paranoia

You know his work, if not his name. At 79, with a new novel out and his early work back in print, Richard Matheson is seeing his legend blossom.

September 18, 2005|Dick Lochte | Dick Lochte is a novelist living in Santa Monica. His most recent book, written with Christopher Darden, is "Lawless" (NAL/Onyx).

"I don't like horror pictures."

This shouldn't be unexpected from a kindly looking septuagenarian living peacefully in a hilltop home in a gated Southern California community. But this septuagenarian is Richard Matheson, the writer responsible for such seminal shockers as "I Am Legend" (the last human struggles to survive in a world otherwise populated by biological war-spawned vampires), "The Shrinking Man" (a hapless male suffers a size reduction to the point where he becomes potential fodder for cats and spiders) and "Duel" (the ultimate battle between man and monstrous machine that, in its televised version, transformed novice director Steven Spielberg into a name above the title).

Those works provided, by adaptation or inspiration, an endless gallery of horrific films. And Matheson has contributed directly to the genre by turning his short stories into several classic "Twilight Zone" episodes, from William Shatner's fear-of-flying meltdown while sharing a plane ride with a wing-ripping gremlin to Agnes Moorehead's inarticulate backwoods woman being attacked by tiny spacemen.

He helped turn Edgar Allan Poe's "The House of Usher" into what Leonard Maltin describes as "a first-rate horror film." What's more, his adaptation of a then-unpublished novel by Jeff Rice resulted in "The Night Stalker," a TV movie about a reporter's search for a bloodthirsty vampire in Las Vegas that was watched by a record number of viewers and prompted a sequel, "The Night Strangler," as well as a series.

"That's not what I mean by horror," Matheson says. "I'm talking about visceral horror. Like the film they keep showing on television, 'Species.' You're watching this beautiful woman, and suddenly there are fins popping out of her back. Even in 'Alien,' which is practically a masterpiece, there's a scene where this thing pops out of John Hurt's stomach. Absolute horror. Blood. Uggg."

He smiles. "Effective, of course."

For him, the ideal terror film is "Rosemary's Baby." "Nothing physical happens, and yet the film gets more and more frightening as it goes on. I always think less is better."

This approach lost him one screenwriting plum. Impressed by his work, Alfred Hitchcock summoned Matheson to his office in the early '60s to discuss a new project, a film to be based on a Daphne du Maurier story. Had he any ideas? "Well, Mr. Hitchcock," Matheson remembers saying, "I don't think you should show too much of the birds."

It was a temporary setback in a career that, now that he has successfully survived a heart valve replacement, shows no sign of stopping. A new novel, "Woman," a mixture of sexual politics and metaphysics taken to terrifying extremes, was published in early June by Gauntlet Press, precisely 55 years after his first fiction, a short story called "Born of Man and Woman," appeared in the summer 1950 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Back then, Matheson was living in Brooklyn, a graduate of World War II and the Missouri School of Journalism, the offspring of Norwegian immigrants who separated when he was 8 years old. He was raised by his mother, "who was very distrustful of the outside world."

An inherited strain of this has stayed with him. He has proceeded through life with such excessive caution that his children have referred to him--in a spirit of "tolerant amusement," he says--as Mr. Paranoia. And distrust has given his creative output a certain unity. That initial short story, told from the point of view of a mutant child who is kept chained in the basement by his human parents, contains two elements common to almost all of his writing, including "Woman"--a deceptively ordinary setting and an alienated protagonist trapped in a life-threatening and probably hopeless situation.

In 1951, Matheson traveled to Southern California, ostensibly in search of a climate warmer than Brooklyn. But really, "I wanted to write movies."

He met his wife, Ruth Ann, on the beach at Santa Monica. "I picked her up. Ordinarily, I wouldn't have dared, but I was 3,000 miles away from my judgmental family." Ruth Ann had a daughter by a previous marriage, and by 1952 she and Matheson had begun a family of their own. He sold fiction to magazines and worked the night shift at Douglas Aircraft, cutting airplane templates.

In 1955, he sold his novel "The Shrinking Man" to Universal Studios with the proviso that he be allowed to write the script. The success of that film led to other assignments, episodes of small-screen series such as "Lawman" and "Star Trek" and "The Twilight Zone," where he and his best friend, Charles Beaumont, would become, after host-creator Rod Serling, the show's most frequent contributors. But it was the success of "Duel" that raised his status as a screenwriter.

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