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Matheson, Richard

Entry updated 31 July 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1926-2013) US screenwriter and author, initially thought of as primarily an sf writer, having begun to publish work of genre interest with "Born of Man and Woman" for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Summer 1950; he was a creator of terror and fantasy in both fiction and film; his Westerns, however, are mostly nonfantastic. His sometimes daring transgressions of conventional genre boundaries marked him from the first as a natural (and muscular) user of Equipoisal devices and assumptions; indeed, he had regarded his first (and still most famous single) tale as a simple terror story but, on finding it praised as sf – it tells in affecting pidgin English of a terrifying Mutant child and of his break towards a kind of freedom (see Children in SF) – decided to cash in on the then-current sf boom, including most of his best early work in Born of Man and Woman: Tales of Science Fiction and Fantasy (coll 1954; with four stories cut vt Third from the Sun 1955), which was marketed as sf. Similarly equipoisal between terror and sf – after nonfantastic novels including Fury on Sunday (1953) and Someone Is Bleeding (1953) – his first sf novel, I Am Legend (1954; vt The Omega Man: I Am Legend 1971), is a Post-Holocaust story set in an apocalyptic Los Angeles (see California) in which only one man remains unaffected by Pandemic bacterium that induces vampirism (see Supernatural Creatures; Vampires). Matheson scripted the first film version of this, L' Ultimo Uomo della Terra (1964; vt The Last Man on Earth 1964) but, angered by the rewrite of his script, used the pseudonym Logan Swanson for his screenplay credit; he was not responsible for the script of the second film version, The Omega Man (1971), though he did receive credit for I Am Legend (2007), which features a lone survivor in New York who has been attempting for three years to find a cure.

Matheson had earlier, however, successfully adapted The Shrinking Man (1956), his second sf novel, as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), which won a 1958 Hugo; indeed, he sold it to Universal only on condition that he could write the screenplay, thus gaining an entry into the film business, amassing nearly 100 credits before his death. This novel uses an sf component to shape the story of a man who, after exposure to radiation and insecticide, begins to shrink inexorably to microscopic size (see Great and Small; Mutants). Matheson's next major commission was for the television series The Twilight Zone in 1959; all told, fourteen of his scripts appeared in that first series, including the adaption of his story "Steel" (May 1956 F&SF) which also became the film Real Steel (2011) directed by Shawn Levy. For the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone Matheson adapted his own story "Button, Button" (June 1970 Playboy), which later became the film The Box (2009).

In 1960 he wrote the screenplay for the first of Roger Corman's adaptations of horror stories by Edgar Allan Poe, The House of Usher (1960; vt The Fall of the House of Usher UK), and subsequently he scripted a number of fantasy/horror films, in collaboration for Corman and other directors: The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), Night of the Eagle (1962; vt Burn Witch Burn) – based on Conjure Wife (April 1943 Unknown; 1953; vt Burn Witch Burn 1962) by Fritz Leiber, screenplay written with Charles BeaumontThe Raven (1963), The Comedy of Terrors (1963), Fanatic (1965), The Devil Rides Out (1968) and De Sade (1969). His television work has included several scripts for Star Trek and later for Rod Serling's Night Gallery. He also scripted a number of made-for-tv feature films, by far the best being Duel (1971), from his own story "Duel" (April 1971 Playboy); the film was Steven Spielberg's first significant work as a director, and was given theatrical release in the UK. Others included The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973) (see Kolchak: The Night Stalker), Dying Room Only (1973), Dracula (1973), Scream of the Wolf (1974), The Stranger Within (1974) and The Martian Chronicles (1979). His script with William F Nolan for the television movie Trilogy of Terror (1975) was based on three of his own stories. Of his feature-film scripts, that for Master of the World (1961) is the most obviously science-fictional. His psychological-cum-supernatural melodrama Hell House (1971) was filmed as The Legend of Hell House (1973), again with his own screenplay. Here, too, there are borderline sf elements; to repeat, Matheson's entire career has cross-fertilized sf with Horror.

Further volumes of stories with some sf interest are The Shores of Space (coll 1957) and Shock! (coll 1961; vt Shock I: Thirteen Tales to Thrill and Terrify 1979), though the latter volume's successors, Shock II (coll 1964), Shock III (coll 1966) and Shock Waves (coll 1970; vt Shock 4 1980), are primarily assemblages of fantasy stories. The eighty-six stories assembled in Richard Matheson: Collected Stories (coll 1989) [for vts see Checklist] cover his career 1950-1971. A fantasy, Bid Time Return (1975; vt Somewhere in Time 1980), once again powerfully utilizes devices from sf (in this case Time Travel) in a story whose emotional satisfactions are not dependent on a successful sf resolution of the problems that arise; it was filmed as Somewhere in Time (1980) from his own script, and was later assembled with What Dreams May Come (1978) as Somewhere in Time/What Dreams May Come: Two Novels of Love and Fantasy (both texts rev, omni 1991). The latter novel, an Afterlife fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], shares with its predecessor a carefully controlled pathos occasionally reminiscent of Robert Nathan. Earthbound (1982 as by Logan Swanson; text restored as by Matheson 1989) is a ghost story. Matheson has also written some short fiction – including "Where There's a Will" (in Dark Forces, anth 1980, ed Kirby McCauley) – in collaboration with his son Richard Christian Matheson.

The dominant theme in Matheson's work was always Paranoia, whether imagined in Gothic or in sf terms. In Duel a truck inexplicably attacks a car; in Dying Room Only a woman's husband disappears in a motel toilet but no one will believe her; though the pregnancy in The Stranger Within did not result from infidelity, that is the way it seems to the woman's sterile husband. I Am Legend (one man against a world of Vampires) is, in its obsessive images of persecution, perhaps the very peak of all paranoid sf. A late novel Woman (2005) applies horror tropes to the sf premise that male and female humans can no longer co-inhabit the earth. Though Matheson cannot be considered as in any primary sense an sf writer, his influence as one of the "liberators" of magazine sf (see SF Magazines) in the early 1950s keeps his name vividly in mind. Over the subsequent decades of his career he was widely recognized and honoured, gaining (for instance) the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement award in 1984 and the Bram Stoker Life Achievement award for horror in 1991. He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010. [JC/JB/PN]

see also: Biology; Disaster; EC Comics; End of the World; Monsters; Religion; Robots.

Richard Burton Matheson

born Allendale, New Jersey: 20 February 1926

died Los Angeles, California: 23 June 2013

works (lightly selected; not broken up according to genre)

collections and stories



collections including plays and scripts

Matheson Uncollected

individual titles

works as editor


about the author


previous versions of this entry

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