Reflections of a Storyteller: A Conversation with Richard Matheson…
2004–2005 saw publication of Darker Places and the scripts of Duel and The Distributor
By William P. Simmons
Previously published in Cemetery Dance magazine, reprinted by author’s permission
A writer who brought believability and a conscience to speculative and dark fiction early in his career as a short story writer and screenwriter, Richard Matheson, the man, has continued to evolve no less rapidly (and with just as much heart) as his characters – men and women whose battles against a largely hostile world and their own struggling perceptions of Self result in either transformation or defeat. Ushering in a new age of literary fear and dark fantasy with his first published story, “Born Of Man And Woman,” which instantly made him a publishing success, Matheson took the art of fear from the Gothic castles and battlements of its melodramatic ancestry and placed it in the modern American home. Matheson’s monsters were just as often human as they were supernatural, and his subsequent novels and stories exhibited characters struggling with their hearts and morals no less than with physical adversaries such fearsome beasts as one another.
Called “one of the most important writers of the 20th century” by Ray Bradbury, Matheson inspired other notable authors, including Stephen King, who cited Matheson as “the author who influenced me most as a writer.” A writer in love with words and the aesthetic power of storytelling, Matheson has refused to limit his imagination and creative efforts to any one subject or approach. In addition to his novels of mystery, science fiction, horror, fantasy, and the western, he has long been an influential writer of film and television. Working during “the Golden Age of Television,” he contributed fourteen of arguably the most beloved episodes of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, including “The Invaders,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “Little Girl Lost,” cementing his status as a cultural icon. With his late friend and fellow writer Charles Beaumont, he wrote several episodes of other popular dramas as well, including scripts for “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “Night Gallery,” and “Star Trek.” He later went on to work with B picture pioneer Roger Corman and AIP pictures, contributing to the silver screen such macabre efforts as The Fall Of The House Of Usher, The Comedy Of Terrors, Burn Witch Burn (again with Beaumont), and several other landmarks of cinematic terror and adventure.
In the meantime, Matheson continued to write novels that changed the face of fiction with his trademark minimalist style, philosophical themes, and brazenly original re-workings of universal fears and fancies. Such novels as The Shrinking Man (filmed as “The Incredible Shrinking Man” in 1957), I Am Legend (filmed twice, poorly), and Bid Time Return (filmed as “Somewhere in Time”) have became part of the national language, adopted into the cultural consciousness. Adapting several of his short pieces for television as well as film, constantly stretching his creative muscles, Matheson was also responsible for some of the finest fantastical moments on the television screen, including “Prey,” the killer doll opus that raised the hackles of an entire generation in the made-for-television Dan Curtis production, Trilogy Of Terror, and The Night Stalker, the later of which drew around 75 million viewers on its original broadcast. While Matheson is known primarily for his work in terror, fantasy, and science fiction, it should also be acknowledged that he was the writer behind The Morning After and several highly readable books on metaphysics, including A Primer Of Reality and The Path.
Born in New Jersey in 1926, Matheson has lived and worked in California since 1951. His career, spanning five decades, has earned him numerable awards, including the World Fantasy Convention’s Life Achievement Award, the Bram Stoker Award for Life Achievement, the Hugo Award, the Edgar Allan Poe Award, the Golden Spur Award, and the Writer’s Guild Award. But it’s his words that count most, not his awards, not even his reputation. The energy and passion, the meaning and philosophy inherent in his lean, emotionally poignant narratives merge surface entertainment with intellectual substance, challenging reader’s views of life, Self, and the afterlife. He is, in short, the real deal.
2004 and 2005 will see publication of several new Matheson projects, including Darker Places, a collection of horror stories he wrote “to scare people,” and the scripts of Duel and The Distributor (a novelette reminiscent of Stephen King’s Needful Things). Also on the horizon is Unrealized Dreams a treasure of unreleased screenplays including Fantastic Little Girl, an unproduced sequel to The Incredible Shrinking Man, Appointment At Zahrain, an unproduced vehicle which was to have starred Clark Gable, and Sweethearts And Horrors, a screenplay which was to have starred Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbone. In 2005 Matheson will release The Link, a script treatment written in novel-like form, which was to have been a mini-series for ABC television, and lastly, an as yet untitled vampire omnibus which will include an adaption of Dracula for Dan Curtis, a reprint of the novel I Am Legend, and a screenplay of the same. And possibly, a short novel by Matheson when he was fourteen years old.
One thing is for certain. No matter which aesthetic form or genre he chooses to explore, Richard Matheson belongs to no one form of fiction, owes allegiance to no single form. Having contributed to practically every genre, he is beholden to none. He is, in short, a writer’s writer. An author as capable of sharing his philosophical views on metaphysics as he is of crafting everyday characters struggling against themselves or the supernatural.
Richard Matheson, story teller.
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WS: Later this year Gauntlet Press is releasing your screenplay of Duel. How does your screenplay differ from Spielberg’s film?
RM: It doesn’t. I had more voice-overs in my script, that’s all. Except for that, it followed my script really well.
WS: How do you feel about the several films that have been made from your fiction? Have they for the most part remained true to your stories?
RM: No. Somewhere in Time is the closest – that follows my script very closely, and I was very happy with it. Stir of Echos, last year, with David Koepp, followed my story line very closely though he updated it. I think it is an excellent film. And most of the Poe films followed my scripts as well.
WS: While you initially faced the same difficulty as anyone else when first trying to enter the world of screen writing, I believe you broke through when you forced the producers who wanted to option The Shrinking Man to let you write the script.
RM: Yes, because I waited until they wanted my novel! There are other ways to do it now, but back then I think that was the best way. My book was not called the Incredible Shrinking Man (as it if is often referred to), it was just called The Shrinking Man. The phrase Incredible Shrinking has became part of the American language. I just saw it in Weekly Variety yesterday.
WS: In other words the producer added it to the title.
RM: Yes. My feeling is, it’s already pretty incredible that a guy is shrinking! Why add the adjective?
WS: In your screenplay The Distributor (based on your novella of the same name ), a man whom we know nothing about moves into a neighborhood and through manipulation pits neighbor against neighbor, leaving to do the same elsewhere when he has accomplished the chaos he desires. What was your interest in writing this story?
RM: It was a Playboy novelette at first. It has never been made into a movie and my screenplay has never been used, and at one point a writer wrote a speculative script and that was not made either. When I wrote the story, I just thought it would be interesting to do a story of an evil that wasn’t going to be identified. The evil was going to be approached in such a banal everyday way. Nothing supernatural or mysterious about it. The protagonist just methodically demolishing the neighborhood.
WS: Gauntlet Press is releasing a collection of your unreleased screenplays entitled Unrealized Dreams Included in this book is Fantastic Little Girl, a sequel to The Incredible Shrinking Man. Why did you write a sequel? What did you feel you had left to say regarding this story?
RM: They paid me for it. They had all these sets and props. The picture made a lot much money. They wanted to do a sequel. I don’t know why they didn’t film it.
WS: How did you feel regarding the film version of The Incredible Shrinking Man?
RM: For years I didn’t like it. It was not appropriate, I thought. But over the years I realized that it was very unusual for its time. The ending , the whole approach, was unusual. And, actually, its excellent. Grant Williams did a bang up job playing the man.
WS: Unrealized Dreams, from Gauntlet Press, also includes Appointment At Zahrain. Can you describe the basic premise of this screenplay, which you purportedly wrote with Clark Gable in mind?
RM: It was supposed to be Clark Gable’s next film. I wrote it for Paramount, and the director of The Young Lions. It never worked out but they did make a different version of it later on. It was supposed to be Clark Gable’s next film. If he hadn’t died of a heart attack after straining himself on The Misfits he probably would have made it.
WS: Describe the premise of Sweethearts And Horrors, the script you wrote for Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Vincent Price, which will also appear in Unrealized Dreams.
RM: That was going to be a sort of sequel to Comedy of Terrors. Actually, more like a follow-up than a sequel. I think it is a very good script. I wanted to add Tallulah Bankhead into the group, which would have been marvelous. She appeared in a Hammer Film I wrote that they called – yuk – Die, Die, My Darling!
WS: Was it to be another AIP production?
RM: I think so. It may be around the time that Jim Nicholson died, I don’t know for sure.
WS: In 2005 Gauntlet will be publishing a screen treatment of yours called The Link, a teleplay that was intended as a 20 hour miniseries for ABC, written in a narrative-like format.
I worked a year and a half on that outline. It was over 800 pages long and in narrative form. Barry Hoffman is actually printing the outline. At one point I started to novelize it and got about 600-700 pages into it, and never finished it. Barry decided that the outline was the complete story, so he decided to publish that.
WS: Why didn’t you finish it?
RM: Because my agent said we’d have to charge $50 for the book! It might been many thousand pages long! So I just gave it up.
WS: Does The Link explore similar metaphysical speculations and beliefs as What Dreams May Come and Come Fygures, Come Shadowes? How does it differ from your other metaphysical material?
RM: They are all different aspects. What Dreams May Come is about life after death. Come Fygures, Come Shadowes is about spiritualism.
WS: So where would The Link fit in?
RM: The Link was supposed to cover every aspect of the metaphysical, which it does, but I had to take and lift out some of the pieces, and Cemetery Dance published that with the tile Medium Rare. Barry has asked them if he can use it in The Link, and they said okay. My idea was to cover the entire field of metaphysics starting with the Fox sisters back in 1840 and periodically dramatize sequences of various psychic events in the past along with every aspect of parapsychological investigation in the modern world.
WS: In 2005 Gauntlet is also releasing an omnibus of your vampire fiction, including the novel I Am Legend and its unproduced screenplay. What was your opinion of The Last Man On Earth and The Omega Man, both rather lackluster films that were based on your novel?
RM: I was disappointed in The Last man On Earth, even though they more or less followed my story. I think Vincent Price, whom I love in every one of his pictures that I wrote, was miscast. I also felt the direction was kind of poor. I just didn’t care for it. The Omega Man was so removed from my book that it didn’t even bother me! I was told at one time that Charlton Heston had managed to interest Sam Peckinpah in directing. That could have really been something special.
WS: Why wasn’t your screenplay for I Am Legend ever produced?
RM: Well, I was working for Hammer films and I went over to London and stayed at a hotel there and wrote the script. When it wasn’t made I felt “well, they just didn’t like it,” but it turned out that wasn’t the case. It was the censor. The censor had just allowed them to squeeze by with their Frankenstein and their Dracula and the British were very strong on censorship so my script which follows the book, so they said no way, and so they had to finally sell it to a producer in the United States.
WS: Your adaptation of Dracula, Which will also appear in the Gauntlet collection of your Vampire material, was the first which stayed rather faithful to Stoker’s novel.
RM: That’s right. All the others followed the Broadway play. I don’t know if it was shot in three hours, but it should have been. They had enough material.
WS: Did you feel intimidated at all dealing with what is considered a classic of Gothic fiction?
RM: No, I just thought “well, no one’s ever done the book. I think I’ll do the book!” And Dan Curtis did an excellent job directing it.
WS: Coming soon from Gauntlet Press, Darker Places is a collection of horrific stories, novellas, and the unproduced screenplay from John Saul’s Creature. Why did they go unpublished until now?
RM: I wrote them some time ago and they just never sold. They are not bad, I reread them. They’re not bad!
WS: In your Introduction to Darker Places you state that, “psychologically– and I hope spiritually – I am opposed to such writing now” in reference to horror fiction. Why?
RM: Because I don’t think that the idea of it being vicarious is correct. I think that when people are exposed to it, it gets in their brain and stays there. I don’t think it’s just a vicarious pleasure and then they forget about it. I think it roots itself in their psyches.
WS: And if it does? Why do you feel that would be damaging?
RM: Because it’s terrifying! If you go around consciously or subconsciously thinking about vampires and ghouls and crypts and graves and ghosts, you have a problem.
WS: So you don’t believe the negative aspects of existence deserve to be explored along with the positive?
RM: Well, terror is a venerable form of literature. I’m not putting it down. I’ve done it myself. I just don’t feel like I want to do it anymore. I have no interest whatever now in terror or horror. I never liked horror in the first place.
WS: Human kind is no stranger to violence. We’re a violent species. And art of course reflects this, one need only look to the tragedies of Shakespear to see violence, terror, and depravity as an important dimension of human experience.
RM: Well, nobody is going to imitate Macbeth today. Nobody’s going to look for a king and kill him. You’re right though, it’s been all throughout history. As I said, terror and horror are venerable genres that have existed from way back when, and I’m certainly not going to say that “oh no, they shouldn’t exist!” You can hardly do that. But I never liked horror. As for the horror films today, they are so gross. They are hideously gross!
WS: How so? And what do you think this suggests about our culture?
RM: The fact that they make a lot of money, that the young people go and say “hey, cool!” I think that’s awful! It’s just my personal opinion, based on my metaphysical beliefs. As I said, I think that these things route themselves in the soul, and I think you can’t get them out that easily. At the same time, I don’t denounce what I have done in the past. I was very good at writing scary stuff. And when I was young, I got a kick out of writing that kind of stuff.
WS: How did you react to your dark fiction back then?
RM: Back then I would tend to burst out into laughter! When you are young, this happens. As time goes by your philosophy changes . . . and if it doesn’t change, emotionally and psychologically, as you get older, then you are really in trouble.
WS: If you feel dark fiction is so very dangerous to the psyche, why allow collections like Darker Places to be published?
RM: Good question. Morally I shouldn’t publish it. But I don’t think the stories are viscerally horrible.
WS: You’re no stranger to people telling you how much they enjoy your work. How do you feel about this kind of attention?
RM: Good. Of course good. It helps – it really does – when people say “I really like your work!” But I used to know this kid who went “Ooooh, I love your scary stuff! Give us more vampires, werewolves, and ghouls! And I thought, “Go get a life!”
WS: Have you often found yourself pigeon-holed or characterized in a particular genre by critics?
RM: Of course. Putting somebody in a category or sticking them in a box is something they just do all the time. I’ve said that when I die they will probably say “Horrormiester Richard Matheson succumbs.”
WS: For instance, you weren’t too happy when you were referred to as “The Hemmingway of Horror” in a Publisher’s Weekly book review, were you?
RM: No, I’ve written a number of other things that had nothing to do with horror. I wrote a really wonderful script called The Morning After, about alcoholism, with Dick Van Dyke. And I wrote an excellent script about Frank Baum, called the Dreamer of Oz with John Ritter.
WS: And your first novel, Hunger and Thirst, which was only published a few years ago.
RM: . . . Oh yes! I’ll tell you, that book was setting in the back of a filing cabinet for so many years. I wrote that way back when – after I got out of college – and my agent at the time said “you know, this is un-publishable.” And I’ve never been that confident in my work, so I put it away. Then my son Richard said “Why don’t you show it to Barry?” So I reread it and thought “my god that’s not bad!” I sent it to Barry and he liked it. Well, he published it anyway. A great cover, too, by Harry Morris.
WS: Moving on, how would you say that identify with your characters?
RM: Pretty much the main character is always me. The man in I Am Legend is me. The man in The Shrinking Man, that’s me. Stir Of Echos, that’s me. What Dreams May Come, me.
WS: You empathize with your creations very much, then.
RM: I not only empathize, I’m it. When I’m writing, especially when I’m writing in first person, I don’t think about the characterization, or how they are going to express themselves, I just express my own approach to these things. I think most writers can never divorce themselves from their private lives and personas; they are the ones that are writing. And the more they remove themselves from their own persona, the more, perhaps, mechanical the work becomes.
WS: What do you feel is the most important aspect of writing?
RM: I had only written a couple of stories when Robert Bloch wrote a wonderful article about me. And in fact it floored me! I didn’t even know that he knew me or had read anything by me. And the thing that he emphasized was honesty. That’s been my major approach.
WS: Give us an example?
RM: Sometimes people are shocked by Hellhouse at the violence and sexuality. My answer is, well, that’s what the story called for. If I write a story about Frank Baum writing The Wizard Of Oz, then that’s what I’m writing about. I’m writing about his personality and what he has done with his life. I’m honestly trying to let the shoe fit.
WS: Throughout a monumental, dare I say legendary career, what would you say has been your greatest disappointment?
RM: That I did not finish these two novels I mentioned earlier. And that they did not use my script for What Dreams May Come. I’m also sorry that I wrote The Distributor, because when it was published in Playboy, a lot of crazy people started doing to their neighbors what I had my neighbors doing. I wrote about this in article for The Times. Later I also found out that some teacher somewhere got fired because she was teaching her class Hell House . . . and that I don’t like at all! I was also told, that some publisher down in South America somewhere that the dictator was named Basco, and so he thought the book was an attack on him. They put the editor in jail. And I thought “Oh God! That’s horrible.”
WS: Did you blame yourself for The Distributor?
RM: No, I don’t. A writer can always say “listen, that’s just a story . . . but I don’t always believe that’s true . . . as I said, I don’t believe terror and horror are just vicarious pleasures. I think it routes itself in your mind. It can affect your mind. Look at what’s going on in the country today. The violence is just awful and I think a lot of has to do with what they are showing on the movies and television.
WS: What work has brought you the greatest reward?
RM: I received a number of letters from people who read What Dreams May Come that said, “My mother was dying and terrified, but she read your book and now feels very much at peace.” And I think “ah that’s wonderful!” No writer can get more than that. So that’s a really positive thing. That’s why I wrote the metaphysical books, which I wish I could get out there better for people to read.
WS: Your later work seems often to emphasize elements of family, am I correct?
RM: Very much so. As I said in the introduction to the collection of short stories that Gauntlet’s printing, you can see my mentality change in the stories which I published in chronological order. In my earlier stories, when I lived by myself in Brooklyn, marriage was like some frightening phenomenon to me. It did not turn out well in my stories. Then I came to California, met my wife, fell in love, and got married. So after that scary things happened to the man and his wife. Then we had children. And that changed my attitude even more. Scary things now happened to me, my wife, and my children. They became a part of my life. Every writer, I think, only profits by being married and having a family.
WS: Is there anything else you would care to share on this subject?
RM: To get married and have a family, is to grow up and mature. It’s the only way. You can read philosophy books for a hundred years, but if you don’t get married and have a family you will never get it. They soften you and shape you, mature you. Absolutely.