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...
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