The Ninjabot

Fare Thee Well, Richard Matheson

Posted on June 28, 2013 at 8:10 pm by Jason Byard

Author Richard Matheson, best known as the man behind the seminal horror novel I Am Legend, died earlier this week at the age of 87. And in an even more appalling tragedy, Brad Pitt’s wretched zombie apocalypse drama World War Z netted a cool $65 million at the box office. Sorry news all around. But there’s a comforting symmetry in it.

As Stephen King put it rather bluntly in an e-mail he sent out in response to the news of Matheson’s passing:

“Without his ‘I Am Legend,’ there would have been no ‘Night of the Living Dead’; without “Night of the Living Dead,’ there would have been no ‘Walking Dead,’ ‘28 Days Later’ or ‘World War Z’.”

True enough. But he neglected to mention that, without Richard Matheson, there’d probably be no Stephen King either. (Sidenote: An e-mail? The guy who needed 450 pages for that God-awful trainwreck Gerald’s Game sends out a quick e-mail to mark the passing of his literary sherpa?)

i am legendBut King’s point is well taken. Matheson’s  work is rightly lionized for its obvious and unparalleled influence on just about every bit of apocalyptic horror fiction that has followed in its wake. And with pretty much every imaginable media artery seemingly clogged with the plaque of endless George Romero rip-offs, it would serve us well to note that Romero himself has often and openly referred to his genre-shaping Night of the Living Dead as itself being a “rip-off” of Richard Matheson’s now classic tale of human isolation and despair set against a backdrop of Vampire Armageddon.

But while according him his rightful status, as the granddaddy of apocalyptic horror as we know it, is proper and necessary, viewing Matheson’s I Am Legend as simply the zygote that would eventually mature into The Walking Dead is to commit the original sin of overlooking just what he managed to accomplish with it.

In much the same way that his vampire villains are bound by the reliable genre tropes of garlic, crosses and the ol’ stake through the heart, while still managing to serve as the template for a new and altogether original brand of horror, Matheson was able to synthesize the conventions of what came before with a visionary concept, far ahead of its time. And in so doing he crafted something not simply memorable or influential, but truly dynamic.

That is not to disregard the rest of his storied career, of course. Duel, Die! Die! MyDarling!, the Corman-Price-Poe series, to name a few, were among a litany of the hugely influential and innovative narratives Matheson churned out during his prime. His numerous contributions to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone alone were pop culture landmarks in their own right (That monster on the wing of William Shatner’s plane? Richard Matheson put him there). But it was with I Am Legend that Richard Matheson changed the trajectory of horror fiction in a way that is still as powerful, gripping and lucrative as it ever has been.

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