Richard Matheson Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The novelist, short-story writer, and scriptwriter Richard Burton Matheson revolutionized American supernatural fiction by injecting elements of the horrific into everyday situations. He was born in 1926 to Norwegian immigrants. Neither of his parents encouraged him to write, but Matheson began writing poems and stories at the age of seven. Following a childhood in Brooklyn he graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1943. During World War II he served with the U.S. Army, an experience he later incorporated into his novel The Beardless Warriors.

His career as a professional fiction writer actually began after he earned a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. Unable to find a job in journalism, Matheson began writing science-fiction stories because that genre was selling well at the time. Yet his stories do not lend themselves to categorization. They lack the rational, scientific explanations that are usual in true science fiction. Unlike the protagonists in fantasy fiction, his main characters are ordinary people who discover that terror lurks beneath the familiar, comfortable veneer of reality. Matheson’s stories represent a breakthrough in American horror fiction, which up to that time had been dominated by the influence of H. P. Lovecraft, a writer of the 1920’s and 1930’s, whose characters are terrorized by mythical gods.

In February, 1950, Matheson sold his first story, “Born of Man and Woman,” the tale of a mutant child chained in a basement. Matheson elaborated on this idea of a trapped protagonist in his novel I Am Legend. The hero, a Californian who takes it upon himself to rid the world of vampires, resembles the single-minded males of Matheson’s short stories. The suburban setting is another characteristic that Matheson transferred to the novel from his short stories. The novel bears a closer resemblance to science fiction than to horror because Matheson presents a scientific explanation, though not a very sound one, for a plague of vampires. With the publication of this novel, Matheson’s reputation as a science-fiction writer became firmly established.

Matheson’s next novel, The Shrinking Man, received enormous critical acclaim. Published two years after I Am Legend, this novel, like other science-fiction novels of the 1950’s, reflects the paranoia prevalent during the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy. In this work, too, the hero, Scott Carey, is an ordinary, flawed man who, through an implausible scientific process, is trapped in a hostile world. The association of sex with death and revulsion, which is evident in several of Matheson’s earlier stories, is also present. The Shrinking Man can be interpreted as a statement on...

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Born in 1926 to Norwegian immigrants in the United States, Richard Matheson grew up in Brooklyn. He served in World War II and earned a degree in journalism before moving to California. Since 1950, Matheson has been writing fiction (both novels and short stories), original film scripts, and adaptations. His first short story, “Born of Man and Woman,” is considered a classic and, like I Am Legend, balances somewhere between science fiction and horror. While Matheson has returned to science fiction throughout his career, it is in horror where he has made his greatest impact, and it could be said that most of his science-fictional or fantastic ideas are introduced into his work in order to create terrifying difficulties for his heroes. Interestingly, Matheson has mentioned that a number of his ideas, including some of the scariest ones, are extrapolations of actual experiences.

This tendency to frighten is visible in the scripts Matheson wrote for the television series The Twilight Zone (e.g., the classic episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”) and in his adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories written for the movies, as well as in his original movie scripts. Matheson’s work has been both critically rewarded (he won an Edgar for the script for The Night Stalker) and deeply influential. Writers such as Stephen King and Dean Koontz have mentioned Matheson’s influence on them, and references to Matheson appear many places, including the television shows The X-Files and Crusade. Perhaps the most intriguing way Matheson has influenced American culture—especially movies, television, and horror—is that three of his four children are writers.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Brejla, Terry. The Devils of His Own Creation: The Life and Work of Richard Matheson. New York: Writers Club, 2002. A biography emphasizing Matheson’s role as the father of modern horror fiction.

Neilson, Keith. “Richard Matheson.” In Supernatural Fiction Writers, edited by Everett F. Bleiler. 2d ed. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. Provides an excellent overview and analysis of his work.

Oakes, David. Science and Destabilization in the Modern American Gothic: Lovecraft, Matheson, and King. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. After an overview of the American gothic genre from 1798 to 1900, the author covers the works of H. P. Lovecraft, Matheson, and Stephen King in depth, showing the ways in which all three authors represent science as a force that disrupts the lives of characters and the natural order of things.