When you read a Richard Matheson novel or story you believe it and you believe it because his characters are real people, reacting as real people would when placed in an extreme situation or confronted by the uncanny. Robert Neville, the protagonist of I Am Legend, is the sole survivor of a worldwide plague, the last living human on a planet of vampires. But Neville is no square-jawed, ass-kicking hero, he is a lonely man, his isolation gradually driving him mad. One day, and he knows this, he will simply open the door, walk out and let the waiting creatures take him, ending his suffering. The Shrinking Man’s Scott Carey loses more than his height as his mysterious affliction gradually reduces him to microscopic proportions. He battles gamely to retain his masculinity, his identity and, finally, in life and death battles with predatory animals and insects, his very existence.
More than any other writer of dark fantasy except, perhaps, Ray Bradbury and his friend and colleague Charles Beaumont, Matheson wrote tales that make your heart ache. As you read the story “Little Girl Lost” you experience that poor father’s panic when he realizes his daughter is calling out to him from a place beyond his reach. “Mute” and “Steel” are incredibly sad, affecting stories, offering only thin glimmers of hope, a fleeting chance of redemption.
He and Beaumont were critical influences on my early writing—I knew them first through their work on “The Twilight Zone”. Only later was I lucky enough to scoop up their short story collections (both thrive in the short format) in affordable (usually used) editions, reading their tales over and over again. About twelve years ago I packaged up some of those collections and sent them to Mr. Matheson for signing (along with a self-addressed stamped envelope). He was good enough to oblige and now those books are the treasures of my collection.
I think Stephen King said something along the lines of Matheson deserving credit for taking horror out of the moors and forests and bringing it into the suburbs. I can’t think of a single good horror writer from the past thirty years who wouldn’t consider him the dean of dark fantasy and cast their eyes downward at the mere mention of his name.
And let’s not forget, he could also turn his hand to other kinds of writing. I’ve read several of his western novels and they stand up well compared to the rest of the field. He had a lifelong interest in matters relating to the power and potential of the human soul. He took his researches into the paranormal seriously and the depth of his knowledge manifests itself in what I think is his finest novel, Hell House. His was an active, seeking mind, restless and sharp and, at least when it came to his work, unsentimental and occasionally pitiless. That’s part of what made him great.
I feel a real sense of loss tonight. Yes, I know he was eighty-seven years old and his time had come. I desperately wish I’d had a chance to meet him, exchange a few words with him. I doubt I would have said anything remarkable or cogent. Of all the Big Boys, I suppose there’s only Harlan Ellison and one or two others left.
There’s a strong sense, a la the demise of Bradbury and Harryhausen, of an era coming to an end.
The King is Dead! The King is Dead!
Long will we mourn his passing.
Iain M. Banks
Resquescat in pace.
I remember the day I spotted the cover of The Golden Apples of the Sun in my school library. I was, perhaps, ten years old. I hadn’t borrowed many books but something about this one drew me, perhaps the brazen declaration (right below the title) that its creator was none other than “the world’s greatest living science fiction writer”.
To me, science fiction was “Star Trek” and some of the old creature features they sometimes played serially on my favorite after school program. But right from the first pages of The Golden Apples of the Sun, Ray Bradbury made me see that science fiction wasn’t just about the future and that the world around me was filled with magic and mystery, it was all in the way I looked at it.
Ray was wary about the science fiction label anyway—he thought he was a fantasist and he was absolutely right. Science fiction is too constricting for a mind as wide-ranging and imaginative as his. He was our small town Borges, the last surviving Grimm brother. Friends and acquaintances testify to the kindness and civility of the man, and his novels and short stories always provoke a warm, nostalgic glow. But there is much darkness in his work, a real sense of menace present in his masterpiece Something Wicked This Way Comes; happy endings were infrequent. The loneliness of the creature in his tale “The Fog Horn” is palpable. It is the last of its kind, doomed and suffering. A serial killer haunts the pages of his much-beloved Dandelion Wine and books burn by the millions in Fahrenheit 451. Temptation and sin torment his characters and all too frequently they surrender to their baser natures. Ray might have had a sentimental streak but he wasn’t unaware or indifferent to the conflicts that rage inside us.
Ray Bradbury expired at the ripe old age of 91. The last few years must have been difficult—there were strokes and he lost much of his eyesight. But he kept working, we’re told, his determination to put words on paper nearly out-living his physical body. He graced this planet for over nine decades but never forgot the wonders and terrors of childhood, the desire kids have to discover the mysteries and secrets of the hidden world of adults.
He was, and remains, an original, inimitable, a one and only.
From that skinny, timid child of long ago and the forty-eight year old man he’s become.