I don’t think I’ve ever gone through my life as a sober person. That doesn’t mean I’m always intoxicated, or that I’m always ingesting some sort of chemical or another to alter my perception of reality, or to just get fucked up – in fact it’s very far from that. I walk through life under the influence of some very creative people whose works have opened my eyes on a level that no drug (which I don’t do) or alcohol (which I do do) could ever replicate. Some of them are filmmakers, some of them are comic book writers and artists, some of them are video game developers, and some of them (a lot of them) are authors.
One such author is Richard Matheson, and I’ve been under the influence of Richard Matheson for a very long time. I was under his influence before I even knew who Richard Matheson was.
A long time ago, the Twilight Zone used to be a staple of my family’s entertainment diet. I used to avoid it because I’m not a fan of things filmed in black and white and because most of my family enjoyed it, and I tend to not be a fan of the things my family enjoys. I watched a few episodes here and there but never committed them to memory. It wasn’t until the filmed version, the one in the vein of a Tales From the Crypt comic book issue with John Lithgow that it got my attention. Particularly, the segment about a passenger on a commercial flight seeing a creature on the wing destroying it. I learned later that this was a full episode of the Twilight Zone that starred William Shatner and eventually became one of my favorite jokes from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective with Jim Carey quoting Shatner’s classic line, “There’s… someone on the wing! Some… thing!”
Years and years later, a bunch of people I knew at the time were telling me that I needed to read a book called I AM LEGEND and in an odd case of synchronicity, I read a quote from Stephen King saying it was the best vampire book ever written. I went out and bought it and travelled along with Robert Neville as the last human on Earth trying to avoid the vampiric population, figure out what happened, and killing as many as he could. I think, it’s been a while since I read it. It reminded me a lot of a movie I had seen a few years earlier called Night of the Living Dead – a remake by horror effects master Tom Savini, starring Tony fucking Todd, and kicking all sorts of ass. After viewing the movie once, which really took effect on me because I have a phobia of dead people dating back to the mid 1980s, I had become obsessed with the zombie film (which is like a hundred years before the rest of you became obsessed with it). I had gone well out of my way in the next several years to find all of George Romero’s films, just as I would do later with Richard Matheson’s books. I AM LEGEND was, indeed, the best vampire book I had ever read. It didn’t flutter the vamps out and make them foppy, whiney little shits, it didn’t try to get you to sympathize with them (like a lot of other vampire fiction does, well, until the end anyway) and it kept them monsters, and it kept them scary. I come from this old school world of vampire fiction where they’re bastard, predatory monsters, not pretty pedophiliac, obsessive wieners. Anyways, these two obsessions of mine, George Romero and Richard Matheson, came to a head when I found out that George Romero basically lifted the entire idea for Night of the Living Dead (the original from 1960something) from Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND.
And then, again, while diving in head first to the fictions of Mr. Matheson with books like What Dreams May Come and A Stir of Echoes, and hordes and hordes of short stories, I discovered this little gem called Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. This is the original short story that Richard Matheson adapted for the Twilight Zone that episode that starred William Shatner and would become that segment in the movie starring John Lithgow.
It continued from there, but not through Matheson himself, but his son, Richard Christian Matheson, whose work I found long before Matheson the Elder’s. A movie that I enjoyed a lot when I was younger was a film that was actually shot in Ogden, Utah called 3 O’Clock High. It was a movie about a nerdy kid that makes the mistake of touching a new kid who has touch issues and violent tendencies and the new kid declares that at three in the afternoon, after school is out, they’re gonna fight! It was filmed at Ogden, High, and it’s unmistakable if you lived around that building for any amount of time. The film is hilarious as the nerdy kid, who I, of course, undoubtedly identified with greatly, did everything he could from trying to buy the guy off and get other folks to beat this new kid up to get out of the fight at three. Great times. A long time later I found a book called SPLATTERPUNKS: EXTREME HORROR – one of the most influential books I’ve ever read in terms of what I, myself, do as a writer – and read a short story called RED by Richard Christian Matheson. Immediately I was taken by this guy’s work, and have read a bunch of his stuff since then. It was about ten years ago or so, maybe longer, that I learned that Richard Christian Matheson also wrote the screenplay for 3 O’Clock High.
These little moments have decorated my life since I was a kid, but none more profound than that of Clan Matheson.
As an artists under the influence of Richard Matheson, the good sir was one of the most brilliant minds anyone can look to for inspiration, education, and pure horror excellence. Matheson was the guy that taught me, more so than any other author, that horror is everywhere. Horror isn’t a genre of literary fiction that’s to be swept under the carpet when the adults come around as it has been treated forever, no. Horror is EVERYWHERE. It’s in life, it’s in every piece of fiction you read, watch, listen to or play through. In every romantic comedy, there’s horror. In every piece of children’s fiction, there’s horror. In every place that there is a human being and there are human emotion, or the lack of human emotion, there is horror. Horror is a complex series of human emotions that almost explode out of anywhere and nowhere at the same time that cannot be explained away by a simple, single word. It’s not just fear. It’s not scary. It’s not just sadness or some other placeholder emotion, but ALL of them at the same time. He taught me this with a single short story that’s collected into my copy of I AM LEGEND that I cannot remember the name of, nor can I recall the title! But it’s in there.
There’s no gore in this story. There are no scares, there’s no ghosts or goblins or ghouls. There’s no vampires, no monsters of any sort fluttering around to blow out the candle of life on some unsuspecting victim. There’s not tits or genitals anywhere to be found; there’s no extreme to be found anywhere. There’s no demonic possessions or any other religious nonsense. This simple, fascinating and terrifying short story has none of the basic tropes that anyone always assumes comes with the “genre” of horror.
What is present in the story is an elderly man discussing the funeral arrangements of his wife. That’s all. That’s all this short story is. An old man talking about how he wants to respect the death of his wife.
And then there’s the ending.
When I read this short story for the first time – and nothing really scares me at all – I felt that sense of urgency that comes with fear sometimes. Like when you’re watching those stupid don’t text while driving commercials and they push the limits and show a car about to hit the person texting from an inside-of-the-vehicle POV (I told you horror is everywhere, even in propaganda advertisements) and you cringe up a little. Yeah, this short story had that effect on me and I said out loud at an elated decibel, “Oh, fuck!”
But it was over.
Short. Simple. Sweet.
To me, Richard Matheson was a fucking rockstar. He was an idol, someone I looked up to more than most people I know in the real world, and I never got to meet the guy. He was a teacher in the best sense of the word. He was, simply put, amazing.