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Richard Matheson, R.I.P.

I feel like I’m writing too damn many of these remembrances. Word came yesterday that Richard Matheson died on Sunday at the age of 87. Matheson’s influence on science fiction, fantasy, and horror cannot be overstated. Before Stephen King, who claims him as a major influence, Matheson was the most successful writer working outside literary fiction. But long before I knew about the genius of I Am Legend and Matheson’s copious backlist of novels and short stories, I knew him from his work in film and TV.

Matheson wrote the screenplay to most of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films, including two of my favorites, The Fall of the House of Usher (above) and The Pit and the Pendulum. (My absolute favorite Corman-Poe film, The Masque of the Red Death, was written by Matheson’s friend and contemporary Charles Beaumont.) Matheson was responsible for writing some of the most memorable Twilight Zone episodes of the classic era, including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” based on his own short story (below).

Matheson wrote for William Shatner again when he penned the classic Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within,” which you might remember as the one where a transporter malfunction splits Kirk into good and bad versions of himself. He wrote the screenplay for the early Spielberg film Duel, based on another of his stories. He wrote the scripts for The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler for producer Dan Curtis, two TV movies that launched the Kolchak: The Night Stalker TV series. He would work with Curtis again soon after on the classic TV film Trilogy of Terror, best remembered today for the segment where Karen Black is chased around her apartment by a living Zuni fetish doll. And this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the extent of Matheson’s filmed entertainment that reached me as a Monster Kid and stayed with me to this day. I’m hardly alone in that. In fact, Matheson’s reach was so long that a recent Family Guy episode was inspired by his story “The Splendid Source.”

But for me, reading I Am Legend was a seminal turning point in my career as both a reader and a writer. Its impact on me was as strong and lasting as Clive Barker’s Books of Blood and David Martin’s Tap, Tap. The world lost one of its greatest talents this weekend. Rest in peace, Richard Matheson. I hope your work is remembered for generations to come. It deserves to be.

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