Of the first thirty-one books I read, thirty of them were by Stephen King.
I’m not exaggerating.
Stephen King got me into reading when I was fourteen, and he changed my life in ways I’ll talk about at a later date. In case you’re wondering, the other book I read was one whose title I can’t remember. It was a Hardy Boys-style novel I struggled through while waiting for my grandpa to pick me up from school.
My freshman year in college I decided to finally read a book by someone other than Stephen King. So, like the slavish King devotee I was, I went to Stephen King’s Danse Macabre for suggestions. One title he talked about in that non-fiction classic was Richard Matheson’s Hell House. That rang a bell for me, because I’d once read somewhere that Richard Matheson was the writer that influenced King the most. Okay, I thought. Hell House it will be.
Oh, what that book did to me.
Not only does it remain one of the scariest novels I’ve ever read—it’s also one of the most shocking, most erotic, and most influential (see how that word keeps popping up?). After reading that book, I craved others like it, so I checked out Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco, The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons, and most spectacularly, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. So because of Richard Matheson I discovered many more great authors. And they led me to others.
Little did I know that years later I would be using Richard Matheson’s work in my classroom (for the record, I’ve taught no fewer than ten Matheson stories to various ages and skill levels). Nor did I realize that Matheson would prove to be one of my primary writing influences and that I would return to his books again and again for knowledge and inspiration.
My tale isn’t uncommon. Richard Matheson has shown generations of writers what great writing is all about. He showed them that a story could have depth and accessibility. He was a dazzling wordsmith (read his classic “Witch War” for evidence of this). He was a master of pace (check out “Prey” and see if your fingers can keep up with the page turns). His characterization was both efficient and effective (check out my recent post about “Born of Man and Woman” for more on this). He could create an erotic atmosphere (“Wet Straw” and Earthbound are fabulous examples). He understood what Poe called the unity of effect (read “The Children of Noah” if you want a story that creeps up on you…then throttles you to death). Technically speaking, he was a master of the craft (“First Anniversary” is a clinic on the importance of sensory details; “A Drink of Water” gives proof to the adage that every character must desperately want something—even if it’s only a drink of water). He could be funny (“Legion of Plotters”), chilling (“The Test”), and shocking (“Blood Son”). But he was always spellbinding.
Richard Matheson transcended genre (something also accomplished by one of my favorite contemporary writers, Mr. Joe R. Lansdale, a guy who I’d bet anything is a fan of Mr. Matheson). In addition to scaring the daylights out of readers, Matheson wrote one of the most stirring romances I’ve ever read—the haunting and heartbreaking Somewhere in Time. He could do westerns (Journal of the Gun Years), science fiction (The Shrinking Man contains strong sci-fi elements, though it’s scarier than most folks might guess), and hard-boiled thrillers (read the underrated Noir: Three Novels of Suspense to see what I’m talking about). He could do dark supernatural mysteries like the sublime A Stir of Echoes. He dealt with loss and spirituality in What Dreams May Come. He could let his hair down and have fun like he did in Now You See It… and the Hitchockian 7 Steps to Midnight (two novels that are decidedly lesser entries in Matheson’s body of work…but are still better written than a great many respected authors’ best works). And of course he could do heart-pounding suspense and horror like he did in I Am Legend (which I hope will someday be filmed exactly as Matheson wrote it…particularly the ending, which is one of the greatest marriages of story and story title ever created).
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Richard Matheson has entertained fans for over half a century and has made a legion of young people love to read. He wrote with heart, with emotion, and frequently with a palpable love. He gave of himself and destroyed many of the misconceptions folks had about writers. He proved a writer can continue to produce quality work into his old age (see Other Kingdoms). He shattered the silly notion that writers must limit themselves to telling one kind of story; there is no formula to Matheson’s work, unless you consider telling great stories a formula. He showed that horror should be inclusive rather than exclusive, an idea I’ll talk about more at a later date.
And in case you’re wondering, here are my five favorite Matheson novels:
1. Hell House
2. I Am Legend
3. Somewhere in Time
4. A Stir of Echoes
5. The Shrinking Man
And my five favorite Matheson short stories:
1. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”
3. “Button, Button”
5. “Born of Man and Woman”
So folks, I’ll stop rambling now. I never met Richard Matheson, but I already miss him. Mr. Matheson, if you can hear me, I just want to thank you. You were a gift to the human race, and you’ve been a blessing in my life. Thank you so much for everything. We love you and miss you.
And we’ll read your works for as long as people value great stories. I hope that’s forever.