I Am Legendary: The Cross-Genre Genius of Richard Matheson


A strange sense of loss and sadness came over me when I read of Richard Matheson’s passing last week.  There are certain authors I feel a connection with – a sense that while they are out there creating, all is right with the world because that spark of imagination still exists.  This one, sadly, has been extinguished.  But rather than dwell on the loss, I am instead choosing to focus on the literary brilliance that was Richard Matheson, and how his ability to cross-over flawlessly from one genre to the next helped usher in the modern American horror story, or science fiction saga, or even fantasy novel.

I’m hopeful that the passing of such an enigmatic and versatile author will not mean the end of our cinematic foray into his ingenious world – and I may be right.  The upcoming White House Down is based on his short story Hell at the White House, and a remake of The Incredible Shrinking Man is supposedly in production for a 2015 release.  Matheson was set to co-produce and write the screenplay with his son, Richard Christian.  But don’t get too excited – the last proposed remake was to star Eddie Murphy.  Who knows what the future will bring.



What’s really horrifying is the 25-cent price tag on I Am Legend. Hey-o!

Of course most are familiar with I Am Legend.  Well, the movie.  But Matheson’s original story is quite unique, and the book’s vampires served as the inspiration for some of the most famous zombies in cinematic history.  Before you cry foul, this guy is known as the father (sometimes grandfather) of the zombie apocalypse – not George A. Romero, who admitted he basically stole his zombies for Living Dead from Matheson’s I Am Legend.  To his face.  To which Matheson basically shrugged and said “s’all good, bro.” (I’m paraphrasing).  He’s like the Nikola Tesla of film – eternally humble and gracious to a fault.


Poe liked his creepy basement dungeons complete with accidental live burial.

Matheson also wrote the screenplay for three of the eight Corman-Poe-Price films, starring Vincent Price, directed by Roger Corman, and based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe.   These forays into classic tales of terror earned Corman acclaim, and Matheson received a whopping $5K per film.  Not bad for the early 60’s.


You think THIS is creepy? Check out the story… still gives me the willies.

Many of Matheson’s films teeter on that edge between mystery and suspense, not necessarily gore or the more popular modern torture porn.  Know the difference between horror and thriller?  Neither did I, until our film crew was docked points for mistaking one for another.  Stir of Echoes manages to tow the line between the two quite effectively.  I’m not a huge Kevin Bacon fan but his performance in the film was surprisingly accurate – check out the book, it’s quite a decent thrill- uh, horro-  um.  It’s good.

Cited by Stephen King and Anne Rice as a major influence, Matheson’s horror stories provided the basis for classic Masters of Horror episodes and modern thrillers alike.  What’s fantastic is his ability to present, realistically, what might happen when a single person is the only one witnessing seemingly unfathomable events – an internal conflict of “am I going crazy” amidst the obvious external struggle, which brings a depth to his characters unlike any other.


Hello, sir! Have you accepted Cheesus Mice as your Lord and Savior?

Having been involved in film since our parents were toddlers, Matheson’s first major breakout was The Incredible Shrinking Man.  Though it may now be only a footnote in American sci-fi film history, it set the tone for a series of larger- or smaller-than-life films such as The Amazing Colossal Man and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.  It makes me long for the return of the drive-in theater – you can only truly appreciate these films while listening through a crackly speaker outside your window, in the middle of a field on the outskirts of town.

twilight zone

Two out of three Shatners agree…

Matheson is directly responsible for several of the more well-known classic Twilight Zone episodes.  I won’t go into detail as another author is scheduled to on this very site, but pictured above are three of my personal favorites, penned by Matheson long before the Shamalanana twists were popular and predictable.  The Invaders, Nick of Time, and the transcendent Nightmare at 20,000 Feet still manage to captivate modern audiences.  Nothing made me happier than seeing my son watching these episodes with an intense focus – it’s always inspiring to witness that reaction, to a show from half a century ago.

Matheson re-worked and modernized 20,000 Feet for the Twilight Zone movie in the 1980’s – to this day, I have to hide my face in my hands when the gremlin pops into the window and scares the bejeezus out of John Lithgow.  And it’s a 30 year old movie with minimal CGI and mostly Harryhausen-esque effects.

star trek

I’m bad Kirk, and you’re good Kirk – you’re goody little two-shoes!

Matheson is responsible for one of the most memorable classic Star Trek episodes to date.  You’d think writing for Shatner would be easy, but here’s the rub – he’s actually a very talented and complex actor.  Good Kirk vs. Bad Kirk became one of the more acclaimed episodes of the first season, with Shatner’s personality being divided in an unfortunate transporter mishap.  The Enemy Within remains one of my more favorite original series episodes – too bad Matheson never wrote for ST:TNG – imagine the possibilities there.


I call it Sunday in the Park with Tons of Dead People.

Here’s where my husband and I had a lengthy debate over what constitutes “fantasy”.  I think for him its Game of Thrones and LOtR.  For me, it’s Matheson’s What Dreams May ComeFollowing a rather traumatic personal experience, I consistently turned to this work for comfort.  Although the author was not a fan of the 1998 movie adaptation, it too had a profoundly soothing effect on me.  It’s not an easy thing to deal with disturbing (albeit completely natural) suicidal thoughts – this book helped me, and so many others, cope.  Matheson himself was extremely proud that his work had helped others let go of their fears of death and reassured them that there was an afterlife of sorts.



As the mother of a 10-year-old boy, I have seen this rather terrible film more times than I care to admit.  But, it was a Matheson creation, back when 3-D was a novelty and not a ticket-price hike gimmick.  I don’t know if you’d count Jaws 3-D as sci-fi – it’s not like the shark is a genetically modified, Samuel L. Jackson chomping machine.  I guess it falls into horror or thriller, but again here is the brilliance of Matheson – it crosses over into multiple genres, so it’s difficult to lump his films into a single category.



X-Files.  Babylon 5.  Silent Hill. The Simpsons.  All were influenced and pay homage to Richard Matheson in various ways, through named characters, borrowed plot points or directly parodied stories.  If you’ve been content to live under a rock for the past few decades and aren’t familiar with any of Matheson’s horror novels or films, perhaps you will recognize these classics – The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episodes based on several of Matheson’s stories – check out Terror at 5 1/2 Feet or Homer3Want a disturbingly Palahniuk-esque haunted house story?  Check out Hell House, or its film version The Legend of Hell House starring Roddy McDowell.  The book is much creepier than the movie, which had to be toned down for American audiences and still managed to receive an ‘X’ rating in the UK.  Think psychological thriller plus supernatural horror – pretty disturbing but brilliantly written.

Matheson Inc.


Chris, Ali and Richard Christian

Did you know son Chris wrote the Bill & Ted movies and A Goofy Movie?  That Matheson’s namesake Richard wrote for television classics like The A-Team and Knight Rider?  Or that daughter Ali wrote for The Jetsons and Rugrats?  You do now.  Three of Matheson’s four children are acclaimed screenwriters, carrying both the legacy of their father and blazing their own path across the silver screen.

If you want to learn/see more about the man himself, check out The Life After Death Project, wherein Matheson discusses (what else) life after death and some of what he interpreted in What Dreams May Come.   If it’s anything like he described, I bet he’s enjoying the scenery and patiently waiting for his chance to return.

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  1. THE BOOOOOOX! Good film with one of my favorite patented Matheson-brand ironic twists. Plus it has “Bell Bottom Blues” in it, which automatically makes anything awesome.

    Dude. I actually got a fright right now when I saw the cover for The Incredible Shrinking Man. That is an arachnophobe’s absolute. worst. nightmare. Every time I see that cover,I lose sleep. And the film TERRIFIED me as a child, but at the same time it opened up my mind to the possibilities of the infinite cosmos. If anyone doesn’t think Matheson is a genius, I hope they die.

    Your parents knew what they were doing when they named you, Joy, because this article really did it for me. The Army of Darkness reference alone made my day. The tribute to one of the most underrated genre writers of all time was fitting. But I really wish you hadn’t brought up Jaws 3D; a film so bad that a Buffy character who’d just had his eye put out referenced never having to watch it again as a silver lining. I agree with that assessment.

  2. Damn, I meant to include that one. The guy has a 50+ year career, some things got left out unintentionally, lol.

    Nick, let’s rap about the brilliance that is my personal idol, Bruce Campbell, someday soon. 🙂

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