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.

39 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

      • Alternate endings might be wonderful . . . for those who purchase the DVD. However, the great majority of those viewing I AM LEGEND never see the alternate ending. The theatrical ending is nowhere near Matheson’s novel nor his screenplay adaptation. It seems to have been used to set up a sequel. It’s a terrible rendering of Matheson’s vision and I know from speaking to him that he didn’t like the ending at all.

        • Always interesting to get an author’s insights into the adaptation(s) of their original material. Thanks for that, Barry.

          I Am Legend is what Save the Cat! would classify as a Monster in the House (MITH) narrative. Most of the work I did as a screenwriter was of the MITH variety, and I invariably found myself under pressure (from producers, managers, what have you) to leave the door open at the end for a sequel. (God forbid we focused on getting the script we were working on right without having to worry about the needs of some potential, far-off follow-up, but that’s today’s franchise-fevered movie biz for you.)

          But for reasons I argued in my “Monster Mash” essay, MITH stories are simply not fundamentally franchisable (for the most part), because as soon as the monster has been revealed — once its countenance and motive are known to us — its power to frighten diminishes considerably. Still, as no less than master of horror Wes Craven once told me, if you can’t/won’t franchise your story, “someone else will do a sequel to your last success, whether you like it or not.”

          That’s the frustrating thing about working in Hollywood: More often than not, they don’t buy your vision, only your premise — and then they (re)develop that premise as they see fit. That’s why I got out of screenwriting in favor of pursuing a career as a novelist — so I could reclaim control of my own creative visions. And if Hollywood makes a lousy movie out of your book, it doesn’t expunge your version — the definitive version — from the cultural record. At least there’s comfort in that.

          Thanks for sharing a bit more about Matheson, Barry!

          • Matheson was quite successful in the sixties and into the seventies with his scripts. Spielberg hardly changed DUEL. Serling didn’t alter Matheson’s screen adaptions of his The Twilight Zone scripts. Little change in The Incredible Shrinking Man. His two Kolchak scripts were unchanged. I could go on. Hollywood has changed and not for the better. You really must check out Matheson’s script for I AM LEGEND to understand just how great a film it would have been using his script.

          • I would love to read Matheson’s I Am Legend script — if it’s still in publication?

            No, Hollywood has certainly not changed for the better, as I can attest firsthand. All the creative decisions nowadays get made by agents/managers/development execs that graduated from business school, and don’t know the first thing about the narrative arts. Oh, they think they do, because they’ve grown up watching movies their whole life, but they have no sense of craft whatsoever, and they certainly don’t defer to the authority of screenwriters in matters of storytelling. Screenwriters have, alas, been reduced to hired hands that exist solely to crank out the sequel/reboot/adaptation of some dusty, culturally irrelevant forty-year-old franchise that a studio or prodco thinks it can turn into the next license-to-print-cash à la Star Wars and Marvel. Hollywood filmmaking was always an endeavor equal parts business and creative, but it’s all business now, run by businessmen, who aren’t interested in challenging the era’s sociocultural mores, as Serling was, but who are instead selling nostalgia to a generation asphyxiating on their pathological longing for days gone by. Wonder what great artists like Serling and Matheson would think about that.

          • Yep, it’s a trade paperback You can either get it from us (www.gauntletpress.com) or at Amazon. It’s title is Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend Screenplay (Censored and Unpublished)

          • Nice! I’m definitely going to order myself a copy. For anyone interesting in reading it for themselves, here’s the link.

  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

    • As a publisher who became a friend of Matheson’s over the course of over twenty years I felt an obligation to write about the man not just about his writing. There are just a handful of people still alive who knew Richard the man, not just the acclaimed author. His friends like Charles Beaumont, Ray Bradbury and Bob Bloch have all passed away. It’s just as important to get insight into the man behind the words as the words. I have also written similar pieces about Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch which the editor can request if he’d like to run them.

      • I’d love to get your insights into Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch, Barry! Absolutely! I’d be happy to publish those here on the blog. Feel free to send ’em on over at any point you’re ready to, and we’ll set up a posting schedule for them. You know your contributions — your stories about your unique experiences in the world of genre publishing — are most welcome here anytime; as you can see by the responses to the Matheson piece, there’s an appreciative fan base out there for the authors you’ve published and befriended.

  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

    • Just to clarify, Matheson wrote the two Kolchak Movies of the Week. Neither he nor Dan Curtis were involved in the series that followed. They were not ones to write a monster of the week series. And, when we published Matheson’s Kolchak scripts there is a third included that was never filmed (the series took its place). It was co-written by William F. Nolan.

      • How nice that the third, unproduced Kolchak script at least saw the light of day through Guantlet. It would be great if someone actually filmed it, like the way old, unused Star Trek scripts (for the aborted Phase II series and what have you) served as the basis for fan-made web series and the like.

        • That would be nice. Matheson also wrote a sequel in screenplay form to The Incredible Shrinking Man. Unlike many authors Matheson NEVER wrote sequels but he was commissioned to write a script sequel to The Shrinking Man. It was never filmed. We published it in one of our signed editions. What we specialize in is publishing material that enhances the legacy of an author that without us wouldn’t see the light of day. I published a trade paperback with Matheson’s I Am Legend script in the hopes that a young Spielberg type might come across it and film his script the way he intended.

          • It would be wonderful if someone were to take Matheson’s original I Am Legend screenplay adaptation and film it as is. (Nowadays, with digital technology, the production could even be made to reflect the period in which it was written, if that’s germane to Matheson’s vision.)

            As much as I bitched about Hollywood in the reply above — and everything I said is 100% accurate — there are more opportunities nowadays to produce and/or finish a film the way it was intended to be realized. The example that comes to mind in when, in 2006, Richard Donner was given the chance by Warner Bros. to sift through his copious unused footage from Superman II that had been languishing in their vaults for nearly thirty years and assemble a cut that reflected his vision of the movie — the one he never got to make after being unceremoniously fired from the production by the producers. The resulting project isn’t a finished film in and of itself, necessarily, but it reflects the kind of movie that might have been made had Donner been allowed to complete what he started in 1977. Still, it’s great that we have Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, imperfect and incomplete though it may be, and those are the kinds of opportunities that have been made available in a world where the digital technology has opened the door to do those sorts of things — finish work on a movie decades after the fact — and the outlets exist to get it to an eager fan base (like home video and streaming services).

            I know there are other instances of this besides Superman II, just none spring to mind at the moment…

          • On the other hand there’s the travesty that book place with a remake of Bradbury’s F-451. Rather than use a script he wrote Mel Gibson’s company went through 12 different writers (or teams) rejecting each and every one. He gave up on the project. After that another was rejected. Now HBO has commissioned a script and the film is either in or close to production. A mess, I’m sure it will be. Bradbury wrote even more scripts than Matheson (all those that appeared on the Ray Bradbury Theater) plus scripts for The Halloween Tree and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Neither Matheson or Bradbury suddenly lost the ability to write yet the “new” Hollywood doesn’t want anything to do with their scripts and go outside for inferior one.

          • Yes, I recall Gibson’s production company had Fahrenheit 451 in development for a long, long time — to no avail. (I believe a draft may’ve even been written by Frank Darabont, who also contributed to the eons-in-development Indiana Jones IV.) That happens all too often in Hollywood: Projects spend years upon years in development, often mired in the tug of war of competing creative visions/agendas for the material (an industrial misery I know only too well, I promise you.).

            Case in point: Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. I mean, how long has that been in feature-film development, with all sorts of high-profile directors attached at various points (J. J. Abrams and Ron Howard among them), and the film that finally got released this weekend was savaged in the reviews. They had an eight-book series to work with — more than enough source material (which came with its own fan base, at that) — and yet from what I understand they managed to produce a movie that sort of incorporates elements from some of the books, but really acts as a sequel to King’s series. Huh? Who gave that the greenlight?

            But when you’ve got a Hollywood business model that now only mines established IPs with “brand awareness” (like books, old movies, video games, comics, and TV shows) that they can then engineer into the next moneymaking “mega-franchise,” the art of storytelling — of creating a complete, cohesive, conclusive narrative with meaning — becomes a sacrificial lamb. Every week on The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling (and his collaborators) told a powerful thirty-minute parable that gave us profound insight into the human condition; these days, movies are nothing more than bloated teaser trailers for the next installment (Wonder Woman shows up in Batman v Superman for no other reason that to promote her own solo outing — coming soon to theaters!).

            Cinema has gone from being a collaborative art form to a corporate sales tool. Moviemaking has become too costly to be edgy or experimental anymore. It’s why I suspect the next great generation of content creators may very well return to the written word to tell their stories — a venue that offers them complete creative control and zero budgetary limitations. It’s the reason why I wrote my own forthcoming project, Escape from Rikers Island, as a novel, and also why I much prefer books to movies these days. And I don’t think I’m alone. I’d rather experience Stephen King and Ray Bradbury through my eyes, not J. J. Abrams’ or Mel Gibson’s. All the money and FX in Hollywood, I’ve quite happily discovered, can’t conjure visions as compelling to me as the ones I see in my own mind’s eye.

          • While I agree with all you say (though I wonder if the future will be any better with the bottom line being the only line) I’ve found television programs to far better written than most movies. Bates Motel, The Americans, House of Cards, Orphan Black and numerous other TV shows are where the best writing is now. And, quality actors are taking roles on the small screen. On a typical TV show (though there is latitude on cable) each episode has to be condensed to 43-minutes. There can be no 20-minute chase scenes (again I’m talking about the quality shows). The writing has to be tighter. And with anywhere from 8-12 episodes for many of these programs there is time for far greater character development. And you don’t see an episode being written by 5 writers. It will be interesting to see which version of King’s IT is better. The first half (with the kids) of the TV mini-series was excellent. The second half (with B-list TV actors) was dreadful. And the monster at the end, while similar to that in the book, was nowhere as scary as Tim Curry’s Pennywise. The feature film will face the same problems. The adult actors may not compare to the kids. And from the trailer I’ve seen Pennywise is augmented by special effects to make him more frightening. In the original Tim Curry was a good enough actor to make Pennywise terrifying without any special effects. A book is best, of course, but I’d rather watch a good TV series and 90% of the movies that are released.

          • I think the future of cinema (as we’ve known it) is quite bleak. No one but fourteen-year-olds even bother to go to the movies anymore (’cause kids do still need somewhere to go on a Saturday night outside the auspices of their parents), hence the reason the only movies Hollywood makes are Fast & Furious and superheroes. I’d be very surprised if in ten years theatrical exhibition is even still a viable thing (a cultural and creative transition I explored at length here).

            That said, television is a much more creatively hospitable environment right now, something I recently discussed in my interview with Marissa Jo Cerar, a screenwriter with credits on The Fosters, Shots Fired, and 13 Reasons Why. Whereas feature films have become “loss leaders” to help sell branded toys, video games, and Halloween costumes, television is filling the void left in our culture by producing stories that cater to the interests and preoccupations of adults — stories that are relevant and sufficient to their times. In addition to all the wonderful series you mentioned above, Barry, TV has given us Fargo and Stranger Things and This Is Us and True Detective (even the second season was the kind of noble failure I can appreciate — a creative risk that didn’t pay off but was worth taking nonetheless). Visual storytelling is thriving on the small screen thanks to the many new outlets (like cable channels and streaming services) producing original content that doesn’t necessarily need to be a part of some “shared superhero universe.” (And, of course, distribution services like Netflix are even producing original features that wouldn’t be able to compete in today’s theatrical marketplace. Case in point: One of my favorite recent horror novels, Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, is set to be a Netflix original movie starring no less than Sandra Bullock.)

            If there’s one downside to all the wonderful televisional entertainment at present, it’s just that there’s so goddamn much of it. Not a week goes by that a friend doesn’t recommend some “must-see” series I’ve never even heard of! And the postnarrative nature of most of these shows means you can’t just go in and sample an episode here and there, à la The Twilight Zone, but rather you’re oftentimes committing yourself to a years-long, open-ended narrative. I personally find that a bit fatiguing, and it’s the reason I’ve gotten very choosy about what I watch: I have a small handful of shows I absolutely love (Orphan Black, Fargo, The Walking Dead, etc.) and watch loyally, and I very reluctantly take on new series, preferring instead to devote any spare recreational time to reading. I’ve made a decision lately to consume less, but to really savor and enjoy the entertainments I do watch/read. But, hey — that’s a fortunate position to be in! As movies make themselves less and less culturally relevant with each passing year, content creators will find new means to tell new (often groundbreaking) stories. The narrative arts will continue to proper and evolve despite the inevitable death spiral of one particular antiquated medium (feature films).

            And ditto your comments on It. That is an extremely challenging adaptation to take on (on account of the novel’s length and unconventional narrative structure). The miniseries had more room to play with, but was hampered by the limitations of its network-TV budget, and I don’t know how they’re going to make it work as a two-hour feature! I mean, maybe it can be done, but even if it’s done well, it’s simply going to be a very different beast (pardon the pun) than the novel. The best King adaptations have been the ones based on novellas (like Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption), where the source material didn’t have to be compromised or truncated in transition. I think I’d rather see It done as a limited event series, like 11.22.63 — or better yet just left alone entirely. But that ain’t gonna happen — not in today’s Hollywood. I’m a fan, however, of Cary Fukunaga from his work on True Detective and Jane Eyre, so I wish him luck. We’ll find out how he did in a months’ time…

          • I agree there is a bit too much on television now. I refuse to subscribe to either the CBS or NBC streaming networks as it appears, for now, each will have one or two good series. It would make more sense for them to put them on network TV, but I understand all they care about is making money. With some series I will give a show one or possibly two episodes. If it doesn’t grab me by then I delete what I’ve taped. I also like watching some shows over the course of a week (semi-binging) rather than watch one week and waiting for the next episode the following week. I’m doing that with Orphan Black. I’ve recorded Twin Peaks but if it goes off the rails I’ll delete that, too. I’ve only recently gotten Netflix so i have a lot of quality shows to catch up on.

            I agree with you about IT. I think a mini-series done now for cable (rather than the lower budget original) may have worked. King’s best source material are his novellas and shorter novels. Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, Long Green Mile, Misery were either novellas or (for him) relatively short novels. That someone would even attempt to condense the 8-book Dark Tower into a single movie was absurd and the reviews indicate it’s pretty poor.

          • You and I are pretty much on the same page re: television. Nowadays, a show gets one or two episodes to hook me — that’s it. The days of standing by a series out of interest in its brand and/or concept (I watched Smallville spin in circles for five seasons because I mistakenly thought they might at some point take it somewhere interesting) or fondness for it from better days (I finally bailed on the creatively flagging Scandal midway through last season) are over — there’s simply too much competing for my attention right now. For instance: As big a fan as I am of 24, I think I made it through three — maybe four — episodes of 24: Legacy before I said, “To hell with this.” I haven’t yet watched the new Twin Peaks because I don’t have Showtime (I’ll only pay for so many premium cable channels, which is an altogether separate pet issue), but I’m with you on that one, too: If it derails, I’m not sticking with it out of some misplaced sense of loyalty for the original series. (I, also, have stockpiled this entire last season of Orphan Black — love that show! — with the intention of watching it over the course of a week as soon as the finale has aired.)

            Speaking as someone who has written numerous screenplays (I’ve long since lost count), and is now finishing work on my first novel, I can testify that the story content in a screenplay is equivalent to that of a novella or short novel, but not a full-length book. Novellas like The Body and Shawshank, and short novels like Misery and Jaws, usually have an easier time translating to cinema. I think that’s why the novels of Dan Simmons, who’s just as good a horror writer as King, have never made it to the silver screen: How do you begin to adapt a behemoth like Carrion Comfort or The Terror and retain the soul — not merely the plot — of the story? I also think that’s why Richard Price’s original screenplays (like Sea of Love and Mad Dog and Glory) have been more creatively successful than the movies made from his 600-plus-page novels (Clockers and Freedomland).

            And since shows like Game of Thrones have proven we needn’t compress these postnarrative, multipart literary epics into finite two-hour features, why Hollywood attempted to do just that with The Dark Tower is a complete mystery. If anything, with Game of Thrones now wrapping up (even though plans are allegedly afoot to launch something like five spin-off series), I would think something like The Dark Tower would be the logical heir apparent — turn that into the next must-see premium-cable fantasy epic! (Like Starz did with Gabaldon’s Outlander). Imagine the excitement if HBO had launched it on the heels of GoT‘s final episode, with no less than heavyweights Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey (fresh off his True Detective success) starring on TV show! What could’ve been the next big cultural event became a box-office bomb no one will even remember in a year from now. And it’ll make the inevitable “reboot” of Dark Tower that much harder, because now the brand has “stink” on it. Man, how they cocked that up I’ll never know…

          • Regarding screenplays here’s another Matheson anecdote for you. Ever hear of THE LINK? Probably not. Matheson was commissioned by ABC, I believe, around the time Roots became a sensation (the original) to write a 12-part mini-series that dealt with the occult. He was first asked to submit an outline. What he did was submit an over 500 page outline — part prose (novel) and part screenplay. It was a wonderful story. However, the network got cold feet and asked him to condense it into a 6-part series (as well as add additional plot elements). Matheson began grudgingly but both the network and Matheson agreed to part ways. Matheson was allowed to retain the rights to his outline. He began to write a novel based on the outline (he viewed his novels theatrically so he was able to successfully transforms many of his novels and short stories into screen or teleplays). He never hit his stride and as he often did he put the novel away and never went back to it (Gauntlet has a book of several other aborted novels of his. When he sent them to me his comment was “I really like these). But, when Matheson put a novel away he never returned to it. He sent me the novel and outline for THE LINK. We published the outline because, well, (1) it was better than the novel and (2) told the complete story. For Matheson fans of the occult (which he was very interested in) it’s a must read. We have it as a signed limited edition.

          • No — I’d never heard of The Link! Sounds like one of those series that could’ve been (and we’ll never know) a classic — a genre game-changer. That’s the trouble, though, when you develop a project with a studio and/or network: You’re beholden to their input, and they don’t always put the creative merits of the material first. I’ve had more than my share of exciting projects with great potential get “developed” into the ground by the endless wrongheaded/reactionary notes of managers/producers/development execs. Something as ambitious as The Link was bound to make network execs nervous, and it’s not surprising they would try to shrink Matheson’s grand vision down to a size and shape they recognized, or were more comfortable with, or one they felt was more manageable and less risky — a format that wasn’t quite so untested or unprecedented. It’s a shame, because it sounds like The Link could’ve been as culturally influential as Roots (in its own way) had it been given the support and the space to come to fruition as intended. (Again: We’ll never know.) I tell you this much: I very much want to read the massive outline you’ve published, Barry! (I actually want to read that even more than the unproduced I Am Legend screenplay!) It sounds like a one-of-a-kind behind-the-scenes peek at an ambitious vision of a forward-thinking artist — a vision that was sadly never meant to be.

            Which isn’t to say it couldn’t still be. It’s always possible Matheson’s estate could find a sci-fi author who could “finish” the novel — that is, take the master outline and the unfinished draft and try to reconcile and polish those two documents into a complete work. There’s long precedent for authors finishing the incomplete novels of their antecedents (Robert B. Parker, for instance, with Raymond Chandler’s Poodle Springs; Brandon Sanderson with Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series). It could be done if the right author will willing to take on the challenge.

            The other option, of course, is to take the 557-page outline and essentially use it as a bible for a long-overdue miniseries (preferably on a premium-cable channel like HBO or Starz). Though I don’t know of a television series that finally got produced decades after its initial proposal, there’s certainly precedent for mining genre material from the 1970s that didn’t quite reach its full potential (like Beyond Westworld and Battlestar Galactica) and taking a second shot at it (to great creative and commercial success in the case of HBO’s Westworld and Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica). It sounds like Matheson left behind a through enough record of his creative intentions for the series, and if it found a passionate screenwriter and supportive network, it could very well stand as yet another great (if posthumous) artistic achievement in Matheson’s oeuvre. Wouldn’t that be something?

            I think I’ll order a copy of The Link in the coming weeks; I’m curious to read it. I don’t have the clout to get it produced, alas, but as a horror writer also fascinated with the occult, I’m eager to see what Matheson envisioned yet never saw realized (which goes to what we were discussing above re: Richard Donner’s Superman II — how fascinating it can be to get a look at a the great works of art that might have been).

            Thanks for making us aware of The Link, Barry! Thanks for making it available, too!

          • I can’t see Matheson’s estate allowing someone to finish the novel for The Link. His estate is run by his son Richard Christian Matheson — an author and screenplay writer himself. I had the two of them work on a project together titled Pride. Each wrote a short story on the same theme and then they were to collaborate on a single story. Their styles were too different for this (Matheson Sr. was a minimalist; his son even more so). I suggested they collaborate on a teleplay and they combined their stories into a wonderful one. His son wouldn’t be able to turn The Link into a novel and I don’t feel Matheson Sr. would want anyone else completing the novel. It could make for a great mini-series, as you suggested on a cable or subscription network. The two Mathesons established a production company prior to Matheson Srs. death. He hadn’t been thrilled with some adaptations of his work (i.e. “Button, Button”). Even with his passing, R.C. (what Matheson Jr. goes by) has sold some works in which he will either produce and/or write. One that will be interesting is “The Distributor”. It’s a wonderful spooky novella that has been purchased and looks like it will become a mini-series. One book by Matheson that could be made into a film with little effort is COME FYGURES, COME SHADOWES. It was meant to be the first part of a long novel dealing with a medium. Matheson was told his vision (for a novel) was too long (this was before authors like King sold 800-page novels) and, as he often did, he put it away. But, the first portion, which is actually more of a novella is a complete story in and of itself and packs a wallop. As a film handled properly it would be phenomenal.

          • Perhaps if The Distributor miniseries comes to pass, that might open the door for other projects — like The Link. If R.C. could get a powerhouse producer on board — like, say, a J. J. Abrams — that would also substantially increase The Link‘s profile. (Abrams’ name alone gets projects made, like 11.22.63 and Westworld.) It all depends, I guess, on the kinds of deals the Mathesons’ production company can do. The bad news is, it’s a tough business; the good news, however, is that there are more distribution outlets than ever, and an ambitious occultic miniseries based on an unproduced Matheson proposal could conceivably find a champion in Hollywood — and certainly an international fan base were it to finally be filmed. I’ll keep my fingers crossed…

  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

  7. I would dare to say an artist of any medium wishes to connect with their audience. I know for authors, knowing you’ve touched a reader whether to scare them, inspire them, make them cry or laugh, is by far the greatest gift we could give. A man like Matheson has done exactly that. What’s wonderful about writing novels is the relationship created with each reader individually. Every relationship is unique because every reader brings different experiences to the reading process.

    I saw Robert Crais speak a few years back. For those that don’t know him, he’s a NYT best selling author of many, many books. In his early career, he wrote for Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, and Cagney and Lacey (some of my favorite shows back then). He said he wouldn’t option off his detective series to Hollywood even though he’d been approached many times. He felt creating a visual of the story would ruin the experience for the reader. He took his personal relationship with his readers very seriously. I had been more than impressed with his putting the reader ahead of the money or notoriety.

    As always, great post Sean. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Stacey! You raise an interesting consideration — one I hope to explore in greater depth as I continue to transition from screenwriting to novels: active engagement versus passive engagement.

      Movies and television are passive forms of entertainment: We are presented with an artistic vision in its sensory totality, with meticulously staged images (designed to draw our attention to or even away from certain details), precisely choreographed action, characters embodied by flesh-and-blood actors (either familiar to us, like Tom Cruise, or strategically unfamiliar, like, say, Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds), sound effects, and music. Movies and TV are wonderful forms of entertainment — don’t get me wrong — but they ask very little of our imagination, only that we submit to someone else’s imagination.

      Books, on the other hand, require our participation. A good writer will set a scene that is just detailed enough to be evocative — to get the reader to bring his own life experiences to the proceedings. A reader, in effect, becomes co-author of a story, so my experience reading I Am Legend isn’t your experience, whereas the Will Smith movie offers an identical experience regardless of who sees it. (That, to be fair, can be a healthy form of communal bonding, something I wrote about here.) Novels, therefore, foster an intimacy that movies simply can’t offer (nor are they meant to).

      Case in point: I just reread Stephen King’s Misery. (I left a full-length review on Goodreads.) We are trapped in that room along with the protagonist, Paul, for the entire length of the novel (and, by extension, trapped in his broken body, as the story is told exclusively through his point-of-view): We feel his physical agony; we experience his psychological torment; we rejoice in the periodic opportunities to escape into his writing. I mean, we suffer with that guy in a direct and personal way we simply don’t with James Caan, masterful as his screen performance may be.

      And as faithful in plot as Rob Reiner’s movie adaptation is, the theme gets completely lost in translation. This is a story about addiction: It’s about how drugs (in this particular case, prescription-grade painkillers) help us cope with misery, but it’s also about how art can be an addictive (and redemptive) coping mechanism, as well — how it can turn misery into a kind of beauty, especially for the artist himself. The movie conjures all the thrills and suspense seeded in the source material, but the book is a thematically rich ode to writing itself; it’s a story about how fiction can save us from life’s unplanned (and often undeserved) miseries. When considered in that light, what better medium for that particular story was there than the page? Misery offers an object lesson in active engagement versus passive engagement.

      Thanks, as always, Stacey, for enlivening the conversation!

      Sean

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