Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Richard Matheson: The Man Behind the Famed Author

Writing is a necessarily solitary occupation in virtually all of its stages:  studying craft, breaking stories, producing drafts, editing manuscripts—each of these tasks consigns us to endless hours in the privacy of our own imaginations.  Opportunities to bond with colleagues, a given in nearly any other profession, are often few and far between for us.

Likewise, reading is a conscious act of seclusion, as well—one in which we submit to the imagination of an author.  We often (usually) have no relationship with these artists outside the forum of their fiction itself, despite the profound sense of intimacy engendered through their creations, which have the capacity—and we’ve all experienced this, regardless of the extent of our own personal creative inclinations—to shape our very apprehension of reality.

In our many discussions of storytelling craft here on this blog, and our ongoing appreciation of some of the masters of the discipline, I haven’t yet addressed the subject of relationships—either direct working associations, or the kind of indirect (yet no less meaningful) familiarity fostered with the artists we revere through their stories.  Today I’d like to share a special instance in which those two roads intersected, and from it developed the rarest of all affiliations:  friendship.

After featuring my first interview here last month, I am pleased to host the blog’s first guest post.  Barry Hoffman works with Gauntlet Press, a specialty press devoted to publishing signed limited-edition collectibles and trade paperbacks; in the essay that follows, he discusses the influential fiction of legendary horror/science-fiction author Richard Matheson, and shares personal insights from his experiences as Matheson’s admirer, publisher, and friend:

 

Richard Matheson passed away June 23, 2013.  Many might not recall his name, but you know his work.  Matheson wrote twenty-two scripts for Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, including what many consider the most famous, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which starred William Shatner as a crazed airplane passenger who sees a monster on the wing of the plane.  He wrote scripts for the two acclaimed Kolchak movies of the week (he was not involved with the inferior series).  His most famous novel was I Am Legend, which most recently was a film starring Will Smith (the movie, though, doesn’t adhere to Matheson’s original script or novel).

Richard Matheson’s seminal vampire novel has inspired no fewer than three very successful feature-film adaptations, starring legends-in-their-own-right Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, and Will Smith in the title role

He penned What Dreams May Come, which was also turned into a film.  Both the film and the novel were of great comfort to the families of victims of the Columbine school massacre in 1999.  He also wrote The Shrinking Man and penned the script for what became The Incredible Shrinking Man.  Matheson didn’t achieve the name recognition of Stephen King because he jumped from genre to genre.  He wrote two acclaimed horror novels (I Am Legend and Hell House), five westerns, a war novel (Beardless Warriors), science fiction (Earthbound), several thrillers, and novels like What Dreams May Come that defy categorization.  He wrote well over a hundred short stories but abandoned the form as his short fiction couldn’t feed his family.  He was a true Renaissance man who also wrote music (unpublished).

 

OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MATHESON

I began working with Matheson in 1991.  I publish signed limited-edition books, as publisher of Gauntlet Press, and was working on Robert Bloch’s Psycho.  I approached Matheson to ask him to write an afterword.  He told me he had never written nonfiction, but would give it a try.  His nonfiction turned out as good as his fiction with a heartfelt essay that talked about Bob Bloch the author and the man.  Still, he asked if what he wrote was acceptable.  Both humble and more than a little insecure.

I then began publishing what would become thirty-four of Matheson’s books (most as signed limited editions and a few trade paperbacks).  It was initially awkward for me, talking to what I considered a living legend.  It’s kind of like going into a restaurant and bumping into your favorite actor.  I was often tongue-tied when we initially spoke.  Over the years, we developed a friendship.  Matheson was a true gentleman, something that can’t be said of all popular authors.  I visited him in Los Angeles, and my daughter and I went to dinner with Matheson and his lovely wife, Ruth.  I was surprised that Matheson asked my opinion about current events, book trends, and everything under the sun.  Some authors I’ve dealt with don’t want to hear other’s opinions.  They do all the talking.

 

JUST PEN AND PAPER

Like many of his contemporaries (Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch), Matheson was both a gentleman and bit of a character.  He was most definitely set in his ways.  He wrote his stories by hand (and sadly, until I got to know him, he tossed the handwritten manuscripts away after he typed them).  The most technological item he had in his home was a fax machine.  His son once gave him a portable email machine you affix to your phone.  He used it once and put it in his closet.  You didn’t email Richard Matheson.  He didn’t own a computer.  If you wanted to get in touch with him, it was either via phone, fax, or letter.  And unlike many authors today, he didn’t have a secretary or assistant.  He read and responded to all of his mail himself, quickly getting back to anyone who corresponded with him.

Before “Star Trek,” William Shatner had a “close encounter” high above the Earth in Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”

As I mentioned, he threw away his handwritten manuscripts.  I kept asking him to save them, as we could use them in our books as bonus material to show collectors his writing process.  He forgot a number of times.  He faxed me an introduction for one of his books, and when I called him to praise his work, he said, “I saved my handwritten introduction for you.  I’ll send it in the mail.”  From then on, he no longer threw his handwritten manuscripts in the trash.

 

GETTING TO KNOW THE MAN BEHIND THE WRITING

Our first book with him (Gauntlet Press) was I Am Legend.  He wanted a red cover (no dustjacket) with his signature embossed on the front and a blue slipcase.  Our second book with him was Hell House, an even darker tale.  He wanted the same color cover as for I Am Legend (did I say he was set in his ways?).  I mentioned this to his son Richard Christian Matheson who told me, “No, the cover must be black with a black slipcase.”  I wasn’t about to get into an argument with Matheson, so I told his son to speak to his father.  Richard called me and agreed to the black cover/slipcase.  He then added, “What color is the next book going to be?  Pink?”  It was actually gray, but that sarcastic remark was the beginning of our friendship.

Matheson was also one of the most loyal men I’ve ever known.  When we published his previously unpublished first manuscript Hunger and Thirst, he knew he needed a dustjacket flap to explain why the novel had never been published.  This meant he needed an artist for the cover.  I sent him the work of several artists and he chose Harry O. Morris.  Matheson was bowled over by Harry’s cover art.  From then on, every book of his we published (and those from other specialty presses) had to have cover art by Harry O. Morris.  And at Matheson’s request, we didn’t put the title of the book or his name on the cover, just on the spine so the art could be better appreciated.  When one publisher was slow in paying Harry, Matheson got on the phone and told the publisher to do the honorable thing and get a check in the mail.  A check went out the following day.

Just like his (arguably) most well-known protagonist, Matheson became something of a cultural legend himself, influencing such masters of horror as Stephen King and George A. Romero

Over the years, he sent me a number of his unpublished works.  For all his fame and acclaim, Matheson was quite insecure.  His very first manuscript, Hunger and Thirst, was a mainstream novel that came in at 800 pages.  His agent told him it was far too long for a first novel.  So, Matheson put it away.  Literally.  We published the book fifty years later.  His very first novel, he told me.

Years later, he found a novel he penned when he was twelve, “The Years Stood Still.”  After writing it, he put it in a drawer where it gathered dust for a good sixty years.  He asked me if I wanted to publish it.  While not as polished as what he wrote as an adult, the seeds of Richard Matheson could be found in the novel.  It was a bit too short to publish on its own, so I included the book as part of The Richard Matheson Companion.

No, we didn’t publish his grocery list, but a few years before his death he found a novel he wrote while in college that was semiautobiographical (also written before Hunger and Thirst).  We published Leave Yesterday Alone along with a journal he found that he began writing in the nineties and returned to about ten years later.  Musings was as close to a biography as one could find on Matheson, giving rare insight to the man.

I could, of course, go on. I’ve been told I have enough stories on Matheson to write a book.  So, I’ll close here.  What struck me most about Matheson wasn’t his extraordinary minimalist writing, the plots that Stephen King has said inspired a good deal of his early work, but what a gentleman he was.  I’m proud to say Richard Matheson was my friend and I miss him terribly.  Fortunately for all of us, his work will endure much as that of Edgar Allan Poe, Rod Serling, Shirley Jackson, and many others who left us too soon.


AUTHOR BIO:

Barry Hoffman is known as a publisher for Gauntlet Press; however, his true passion is writing, and he has penned five different novels:  Hungry Eyes, Eyes of Prey, Judas Eyes, Born Bad and Blindsided.

12 Comments

  1. I remember the first time I read I Am Legend. It took the monster and survival genre and turned it on its head. A lot of the book was an engaging discussion of exactly what made the infected and how & why they reacted to sunlight the way they did. It was also a masterful examination of a man slowly losing it in the face of crushing adversity. That last act, though, especially the last scene, was such a punch in the gut that it lives with you forever. It’s a pity that no movie has managed to capture that ending. Will Smith’s movie came kind of close, at least in one of the alternate endings, but nothing compares to what the book did.

    • Hey, Eric! Thanks for reading and commenting!

      I think anyone who writes genre fiction — you and I included — has been influenced, consciously or unconsciously (or both), by Matheson, simply because his reach extended into all manner of popular media: literature, movies, and television. I consumed a lot of Matheson as a kid without even realizing it, between episodes of The Twilight Zone (“Button, Button”) and Amazing Stories (“The Doll”) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“Ride the Nightmare”) and even Star Trek (“The Enemy Within”), and through perennial airings on local TV of movies like Spielberg’s Duel and Christopher Reeve’s Somewhere in Time. As Barry asserts in the opening salvo of his essay, you were aware of his work even if you didn’t know his name.

      And yes, much like John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? (1938), I Am Legend (1954) was way ahead of its time with respect to its commitment to being as scientifically grounded as possible, which wasn’t an aspect of sci-fi/horror that would really be integrated into the genre (in any meaningful way, at least) until The X-Files (1993). (And Chris Carter is on record as having cited Kolchak: The Night Stalker as a major influence on the show.) Up till that point, monsters were usually explained by way of the paranormal; even vampirism was for the most part treated as supernatural condition versus a medical affliction until Blade (1998). That’s why to truly appreciate I Am Legend — or any work of art, for that matter — it must be considered within the context of the time in which it was produced. And if treating vampirism/zombification as a disease rooted in the biological rather than a condition ascribed to the supernatural is commonplace now — a 21st-century approach to reflect new fears (like bioterrorism) in a new millennium — it certainly wasn’t at the time of the book’s release.

      And it is, as you noted, an emotionally engaging story, as well — in this case, a meditation on solitude and loneliness — which is a component I find lacking in too many contemporary monster-based horror tales. Over sixty years after its initial publication, I Am Legend still stands shoulder to shoulder with the best entries in the post-apocalyptic zombie subgenre it pioneered.

      For my money, the Will Smith adaptation, though it took many (necessary) liberties with the source material, captures the two chief components of Matheson’s original story — its emphasis on science and seclusion — and presents a convincing, richly realized vision of post-apocalyptic New York. The biggest drawback is the Hemocytes themselves, which are so obviously computer-generated that it disrupts my immersion in an otherwise very credibly achieved desolate urban landscape. (The alternate ending is pretty fascinating, and really offers an entirely different thematic takeaway than the conclusion that ended up in the theatrical cut. A discussion of that alone would probably be worth its own blog post.)

      Thanks for stopping by, pal. I was hoping this article would be of interest to the many, many Matheson fans out there, and the first comment we got — yours — seemed to validate that. Much obliged.

      Sean

  2. Barry: I understand that Richard’s passing was four years ago; still, I’m sorry for your loss. Whether he left us at 37, 87 or 107 — it would have been “too soon.” And the passing of years never quite removes that futile longing for “one more time together.” This is a wonderful tribute to Richard’s person, as well as to your own. You noted how Richard stood out among others, authors in general; but the fact that you as a publisher chose to go beyond “strictly business” to personal care is a view of the publishing world we don’t often see. Thank you for sharing this tender inside glimpse with us.

    Sean: The choice to include Barry’s tribute to Richard on your blog, though this may be your first guest post, was one that quirked the side of my mouth into a smile. I’ve been along for the ride as you’ve continued to figure out who you are as a blogger, having so much passion for and knowledge about the craft of writing. You’ve shared the behind-the-scenes internal process that goes on as you wrestle between how to balance informational and personal. Well, sir, this struck a perfect balance between the two. Kudos.

    • Erik,

      I’ll simply respond to the portion of your comment that is directed at me: Barry’s post seemed like a fitting entry for this blog, since Matheson is one of the preeminent writers of “things that go bump in the night,” whose work has influenced genre giants the likes of Stephen King (Cell), George Romero (Dawn of the Dead), Steven Spielberg (Duel), Chris Carter (The X-Files), and Anne Rice (The Vampire Chronicles) — among countless others. And given how many contemporary artists have been inspired by that small sampling (I count myself as a fan of all of them), only then does one begin to develop an appreciation for what a vast, mushrooming continuum the narrative arts is — a universe unto itself, really.

      I also thought, as I briefly noted in my intro, Barry’s article offered a chance to address the heretofore overlooked matter of relationships — both the kind writers have with colleagues and readers have with writers. It only occurred to me when I read the essay that for all my copious discussion of craft, there’s been very little mention on this blog over fifty-plus posts of the powerful bonds the written word cultivates, both direct and indirect, and that’s an oversight I’d like to correct, starting with this entry. (Even my anecdotal pieces have often emphasized self.) As you said, though, this blog is a work-in-progress — that’s the whole point of a blog, after all! — and I hope this post represents yet one more step in its evolutionary development. So, I’m indebted to Barry for his heartfelt contribution.

      Thanks for always have a kind, thoughtful word to say, my friend.

      Sean

  3. I was just discussing Matheson’s work today as a matter of fact. He is an idol of mine and has been since I was a kid. When I found out he wrote the famous, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode of the Twilight Zone, I was hooked.
    Kolchak: The Night Stalker was one of my favorite series and I knew that he had written both of the television movies. The Legend of Hell House was a book I could not put down. He has influenced my writing in the fact that I also transition from genre to genre.
    Thanks for this guest post, Sean. It gave me an insight into the man behind the stories.

    • Susan,

      How wonderful to get such an enthusiastic response from you, because I know from your posts over at 1428 Elm that you are an enviably knowledgeable genre cognoscente!

      I too recall watching the original “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” as a kid and just being rapt with fear! There were so many wonderful sci-fi/horror anthology shows on at the height of Matheson’s career (The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Hour), and all of them were enriched for his contributions (either his original scripts or adaptations of his short fiction).

      I’m a hair too young for Kolchak, but I really ought to familiarize myself with it via DVD, because I know what a tremendous influence it’s been, particularly on the creation of The X-Files.

      With regard to genre-jumping: I certainly think it behooves writers, particularly of the lesser-known or up-and-coming variety, to establish an identifiable “brand,” yet I’m also a big believer in writing the story that seizes you at a given moment, “genre” be damned, and trusting that your unique voice and worldview will unify your body of work — that the author himself, in effect, becomes the brand.

      It might not be the best idea for an author with, say, three supernatural horror novels under his belt (and still building a readership) to write an historical romance; John Grisham, for example, made a name for himself as the go-to guy for legal thrillers before trying his hand at adventure (The Testament), family drama (A Painted House), and even comedy (Skipping Christmas). But, that said, having worked in Hollywood, where agents/managers are so goddamn “brand-conscious” they essentially want you to write the exact same script over and over again, I think it is important to recognize that the genre one is known for is only an aspect of a writer’s brand, and not the entirety of the brand itself.

      Spielberg has an identifiable aesthetic and worldview that unifies his films, whether he’s working in horror (Jaws), sci-fi (Close Encounters), adventure (Indiana Jones), coming-of-age (Empire of the Sun), or war drama (Saving Private Ryan).

      Same goes for John Carpenter, whose DNA is instantly recognizable whether he’s doing horror (Halloween), action (Assault on Precinct 13), science fiction (Escape from New York and The Thing), comedy (Big Trouble in Little China), or political satire (They Live and Escape from L.A.).

      And if you were to look at Matheson’s oeuvre, you could definitely trace a line through his breathtakingly extensive body of work. Hell, as Barry himself noted above, a novel Matheson wrote when he was twelve, “The Years Stood Still,” unmistakably emerged from the same mind that later hatched “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and I Am Legend! I think an artist can move more comfortably among genres (without diluting his “brand”) when he knows who he is, knows what he has to say about the world, and produces work that is singular to his particular worldview. That’s the thing writers should take from their literary/cinematic heroes and strive to emulate: embrace your influences, master your craft, and as your confidence rises in your own creative capabilities, “your personality steps in front of those influences,” to quote Geddy Lee, and “that forms your voice,” a.k.a. your brand.

      Speaking for myself, my next several novels are all balls-out monster stories (and most of them set in New York), so there are some unifying elements, but, genre-wise, they run the gamut from contemporary policier to supernatural Gothic romance to werewolf comedy to underwater thriller to a century-spanning superhero yarn. But I know my brand, and I’m confident everything I write fits within those defined parameters. I mentioned in my response to Erik that I need to do more posts that emphasize personal relationships, but I also think a discussion of what constitutes brand is also called for, because it’s one of those vague terms that’s thrown around Hollywood (by idiots) with very little understanding of what it actually means. Just like one’s sensibilities and skills, our brands are consciously developed: They are unique enough to define us as artists to the outside world, and versatile enough to allow for long, prosperous careers.

      Thanks so much, Susan, for contributing to the conversation! When sharp people like yourself engage, you help me refine my own ideas and understanding of the topics this blog covers. So, you have my gratitude.

      Sean

  4. What a remarkable man. I sneaked out of bed to watch TTZ the night they aired “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Scared the hell out me.

    • Yes! I recall seeing it for the first time, too, Mike: It was such a simple but absolutely terrifying premise for a story! I also remember very distinctly watching the “Button, Button” episode of the 1980s Twilight Zone revival and just being on the edge of my seat!

      Memories like that are the best, aren’t they? I think it’s the reason we cling so sentimentally to the fictions of our youth: They made an impression on our receptive imaginations that no stories we encounter in adulthood can quite match, much as we may love and admire those later works, and even regard them with deeper appreciation than would’ve been possible with limited life experience. Horror in particular has a way of traumatizing us — in the best possible way! — when we are children, something I wrote about in “Ghosts of October.”

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Mike; I appreciate that you took the time to do so.

  5. What a talent. I am Legend was excellent–dark but I couldn’t stop watching.

    • Matheson certainly had an enviable career, Jacqui! I agree: I’m a fan of I Am Legend (2007); it isn’t perfect, but it’s ambitious, and it’s a blockbuster with suspense and genuine emotion (and one that doesn’t lend itself to a sequel or franchise, at that). Consider, if you haven’t, reading the original novel at some point: It’s short — a fast read — and its influence on both the vampire and zombie subgenres is incalculable.

  6. Great memories of a remarkable artist. I’m struck most by what seems Matheson’s humility and the repeated reference to him as a gentleman. His body of work certainly would entitle him to a little bit of a big head. I haven’t read any of the books (I know – terrible), but I’ve seen almost all the adaptations into film, and of course, I watched the Twilight Zone “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” as a kid. I still can’t look at the wing of an airplane and not feel all creeped out – 50 years later!

    His genre-jumping is interesting, and though it may have prevented him from becoming a household name with the renown of Stephen King, there is something important to be said for following one’s creative instincts. I like that he was committed to his projects and vision over the lure of commercialism. And that focus shows in the quality of his work and, ultimately, in his success.

    Excellent post, Sean and Barry. I enjoyed the read and the musing that went along with it.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Diana!

      As I mentioned in my response to Eric above (and elsewhere on this page), Matheson was one of those authors who spent a career quietly making his mark on the culture — quietly in the sense that we were watching (and loving) his work even if we didn’t always realize he was the creative force behind it! Some artists are the brand; think Stephen King, Michael Crichton, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino. All of those guys have profound name recognition, and you know what you’re in for (generally speaking) when you submit to one of their stories. Matheson, it’s fair to say, was more of a craftsman, whose personality didn’t really step in front of the stories he was telling. (Barry may be better able to speak to that.) I’m not suggesting one approach is preferable to another, mind you, merely making an observation — one that might perhaps explain (at least in part) why Matheson doesn’t enjoy the name recognition of some of the other genre giants of the last century. But as the responses to this post alone demonstrate, his legacy casts a long shadow, and his place in the pantheon of genre masters becomes a little loftier with each passing year…

      And as I said to Susan — to echo your sentiment about following one’s creative instincts — it’s better that we’re true to ourselves as artists, ultimately, pursuing the kinds of stories we find interesting, rather than chasing market trends or adhering to “brand” mandates out of purely commercial consideration. I have nothing against commercialism — it can coexist with (and complement) art — but if there’s one crucial lesson I’ve learned from my last decade here in Hollywood, it’s that when a writer follows his passions, great stories are born, and great careers are made.

      Thanks, as always, for dropping in, Diana (especially considering that you’ve just recently returned from break). Always such a pleasure to get your take on the conversation du jour!

      Sean

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