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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1125

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....

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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 human alienation and approaches allegory. Aside from the many innovations that I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man contain, they also depart from the conventional happy endings that were popular in science-fiction novels of the 1950’s.

During the 1960’s Matheson wrote screenplays for a series of films based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. In his loose adaptations of such stories as “The Fall of the House of Usher” Matheson builds the horror up gradually. His screenplays are strongest when they deal with the theme of his best short stories: persecution.

Although Matheson’s first two novels can be loosely classified as science fiction, many of his later novels are more accurately described as supernatural fantasies. Bid Time Return combines the time travel motif with the romantic love story. In this novel Matheson dispenses with scientific explanations; his hero simply wills himself back to the nineteenth century. His next novel, What Dreams May Come, is another love story in a fantasy context. In its hero’s attempt to reunite himself with his wife in the afterlife, the novel bears a close resemblance to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Earthbound is the revision of a psychological ghost story he had written when he was twelve years old. With this novel Matheson dispensed with the science-fiction framework of his earlier novels and stories. He has also written in a style free of the pretentious metaphors that marred his early efforts.

In his 1993 novel Seven Steps to Midnight, it first appears that the hero, Chris Barton, is struggling against covert agencies and supernatural forces. Elements of the fantastic seem to play a crucial role in the novel until Matheson’s concluding revelation that the apparently supernatural events were caused by humans and have rational explanations. This novel indicates a new phase of Matheson’s work, where appearances are deceiving and reality is hard to define. Matheson continued this trend in his 1995 novel, Now You See It . . . , which concerns the intricate deceptions practiced by an illusionist and his wife.

Hunger and Thirst was actually the first novel Matheson wrote, completing the manuscript in 1950, when his agent told him it was unpublishable. The story of a man lying paralyzed and dying from a gunshot wound received in a botched robbery, Hunger and Thirst shows what skill Matheson had as a writer even at the beginning of his career. Passion Play is another fifty-year-old manuscript retrieved from the drawer, this one a noir murder mystery involving a door-to-door salesman and a seductive blonde. Camp Pleasant is a short novel about a murder at a summer camp, depicting the brutality of the head of the camp whom, in standard mystery fashion, everyone has a motive to kill. Hunted Past Reason is a horrific take on Hemingway-esque outdoors fiction, in which two men take a hiking trip that turns into a kill-or-be-killed contest. Come Fygures, Come Shadowes is a novel that Matheson began writing—estimating it would be 2,000 pages long—in the 1970’s. Dissuaded from it by his editor, parts of the novel were published in short-story form, but finally the completed section of the novel, which holds together without the 18,000-odd words Matheson never got around to writing, was published in 2003. The story takes place in the 1930’s and concerns a young woman whose mother forces her daughter to follow in her footsteps as a professional medium.

Although Matheson’s style became less ornate with each successive novel, the themes of his work have remained unchanged. He has shunned the mythic landscape preferred by his forerunners in favor of the contemporary world, where stress, not a primordial demon, is the real evil. Many readers can easily identify with Matheson’s alienated protagonists, who often fear persecution from a real or unreal enemy. The traps into which they fall resemble the pitfalls facing ordinary people. Just as his protagonists find themselves locked in a giant oven or a casket underground, so do many people feel trapped in boring jobs, failed marriages, or self-destructive lifestyles. Matheson is one of the twentieth century’s premier fantasists, the power of whose writing derives from his method of injecting only a small amount of fantasy into real life.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 264

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.

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