Top Ten Richard Matheson Stories
Among people in the literary know, there is little doubt that author Richard Matheson is among the greatest genre writers of all-time. His ever-varied contributions to the worlds of horror, science fiction, and fantasy still resonate, some more than a half century after their initial release. Sadly, Mr. Matheson passed away in 2013, leaving a gaping hole in the writing world that will never truly be filled.
So in honor of the man who inspired stalwarts including Stephen King and George Romero, here are the top ten Richard Matheson stories, culled from books, anthologies, and film and television scripts. Yes, this guy was that prolific.
The (Incredible) Shrinking Man
Even for the most devoted fans, it’s difficult to keep track of Matheson’s diverse accomplishments, seeing that he never confined himself to one medium or genre. In cinema alone, he was the man behind the romantic tearjerker Somewhere in Time (based on his story Bid Time Return) and yet another tearjerker, this time with mega-saturated metaphysical elements, What Dreams May Come. In the heyday of 1950s science fiction cinema, he gave us The Incredible Shrinking Man, a venerable horror/sci-fi classic based on his novel of the (mostly) same name, The Shrinking Man. The high concept premise–a man continually grows smaller and smaller until he vanishes entirely–still strikes a nerve, even among those who have caught the film in late-night reruns for the last few decades. Quick side note: Here is also a perfect time to give a shout-out to Rhubarb the Cat for making us fear felines for reasons we could never have imagined had Matheson not suggested them, dollhouse menace and all.
Moving from the big screen to the small screen, Richard Matheson was a well-known contributor to the seminal science fiction show, The Twilight Zone. Between Matheson and series creator Rod Serling, they created some of the greatest half hours in television history. But which of Matheson’s scripts to choose? There’s the obvious “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” a perennial classic, made all the more lovable by a manic performance from William Shatner. There’s also the late season episode, “Spur of the Moment,” one of my personal favorites which I included on last year’s Top Ten Underrated Twilight Zone Episodes. But for now, let’s go with the Agnes Moorehead vehicle “The Invaders.” The unusual setup and oppressively pitch perfect execution easily earn it a place on this list. Simple, oddly lovely, and with a twist ending that might seem kitschy in retrospect but that still packs a horror-loving punch.
A fun little yarn in the vein of The Addams Family, “The Funeral” deals with a most odd request at a funeral parlor: an elaborate service held in honor of a (more or less) living guest of honor. This one doesn’t have the philosophical implications of many of Matheson’s stories, but sometimes, spending a simple, lighthearted evening with a cat-toting crone and plumes of multi-colored smoke is precisely the kind of buoyant entertainment a hardcore horror fan needs. For true devotees, check out the Night Gallery episode of the same name.
In its simplicity, Duel is almost maddeningly perfect: an ordinary guy is on a cross-country trip but he just can’t seem to shake that one semi truck. As anyone who’s ever taken to the open road can attest, this is no odd experience. What veers into the unusual and then the full-on malevolent is the insistence of this particular driver, the outright aggression, and ultimately the inexplicable homicidal desires. The faceless man (or heck, woman) behind the wheel is never revealed, placing this film squarely in the realm of other “masked” killer movies. Add the terror that comes with desolate highway settings and a sense of otherness in the landscape of your own country, and you’ve got a masterpiece. Matheson uses this antagonist to speak volumes about the human condition all without ever having to say a word.
“The Creeping Terror”
The eponymous Creeping Terror is probably not what you think. This is no traditional Lovecraftian monster, but instead something much more horrifying. Hint: it involves, but is not limited to, citrus trees and the silver screen. To give away anymore of the plot would be criminal, but just know that the unusual “academic paper” format (complete with hilarious footnotes) elevates this short story head and shoulders above so many other tales of weird fiction. After you read it, join me in my quest to somehow make the concept of “Beach Seeking” a part of the popular vernacular. You know, because Matheson would appreciate it.
An otherwise ordinary box with a button. Press it and you’re rich, but someone you don’t know dies. This chillingly simple concept serves as the base for Matheson’s infamous tale, “Button, Button.” Long after its release, it was famously made into an episode of the New Twilight Zone, albeit with a very different ending (that honestly missed the point of the original tale, but hey). But no matter. Not even an atrocious Cameron Diaz adaptation in 2009 could ruin this classic. It’s that good.
“A Flourish of Strumpets”
Yes. You read that right. Strumpets. As in, scantily clad women. No joke. Part of me feels like I should be more progressive and take umbrage with this one, what with its “I’m just a poor little door-to-door whore” jingle (again, you read that right) and the subversive charm of lines like “slit-skirted and sweatered to within an inch of her breathing life” makes me love this story more than I ever should. Add in the fact that it was released in 1956, smack dab in the middle of Joseph McCarthy’s oppressive American way, and you’ve got an iconoclast of twentieth century literature in the most nonchalant yet half-dressed package. Plus, that last line goes straight for the equal opportunity. Oh, Matheson. We miss you and your seething social commentary more with every passing day.
“Little Girl Lost”
Okay, one more Twilight Zone episode for good measure. Poltergeist fans should take note: Matheson did it first. This amazingly effective tale of a pintsize daughter who falls through the wall of her bedroom (and straight into another dimension) holds up with aplomb. The gorgeous black and white cinematography combined with Matheson’s unpretentious writing make this a must-see for fans of the series and fans of science fiction at large. There’s no Indian burial ground in the swimming pool, but “Little Girl Lost” is all the better for it.
I Am Legend
No Matheson list is complete without a mention of his landmark horror novella, I Am Legend. This story later became the basis for the Romero zombie (yes, every modern, brain-eating “walker” is actually a descendant of the Matheson-crafted creature, which was envisioned as almost equal parts vampire and zombie). But for all its influence, you can simply kick back with this book and become drunk on its philosophical implications. Glorious and ageless, there was no tale like it before and there never will be another one ever again.
This one almost didn’t make the cut since it already appeared on one of my previous lists. But this top ten just didn’t feel right without it. Known by alternate titles including “The Faces” and “Day of Reckoning,” “Graveyard Shift” is a landmark accomplishment that spans no more than a few pages. Like so many of Matheson’s stories, to give away too much would be a grave offense indeed, but suffice it to say, the recently deceased mother would earn no “Parent of the Year” awards. Far from it, which makes this tale of sadistic revenge from beyond the grave an absolute exercise in the sinister.
Are you a Richard Matheson fan? What’s your favorite story? Let me know in the comments below!