We lost storyteller Richard Matheson this week. We lost what he represented — smart writing on the idiot box — a long time ago.
Matheson, who wrote I Am Legend and more than a dozen Twilight Zone episodes, was a literary paradox, a writer without readers. Matheson’s audiences watched his tales. In this, he is in good company. Shakespeare’s contemporaries watched him, too. Of course, a fraction of Matheson’s audience read him. The television occasionally played gateway drug to the printed page. But it mainly worked in the reverse, transforming active-imagination readers into passive viewers. Unfortunately, the less writers wrote for readers, the less the pixilated medium delivering their stories valued writers.
The phenomenon remains obvious to viewers of Big Brother and The Voice. The reality and talent shows that dominate television streamlined the present generation’s Richard Mathesons out of work. In their place, we get Snooki, Chumley, and Honey Boo-Boo. And even scripted television degrades the writer by relying on big stars or big budgets to win audiences. The best television, the television in which Matheson’s name would periodically appear in the credits, relied on neither. The narrative captivated.
One theme in Matheson’s televised yarns relates to supernatural life preservers saving characters from their sinking lives. In Twilight Zone’s “World of Difference,” Matheson depicts an actor with a harpy wife and a declining career who opts to stay permanently in character over living in his depressing reality. In “The Doll,” originally written for The Twilight Zone but produced two decades later for Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, two lonely hearts escape their sad lives through the interdiction of a dollmaker-matchmaker.
Matheson wrote one of the better Star Trek episodes. In “The Enemy Within,” Captain Kirk splits into two personages representing very different parts of his soul. The more pleasant, and more passive, Kirk realizes he needs the more decisive, and devious, version of himself to be a complete leader. Matheson’s scripts showed up on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Boris Karloff’s Thriller, and Night Gallery. A sort of last hurrah for these anthology programs came in the form of the ’80s revival of The Twilight Zone, which featured Matheson’s “Button, Button.” Therein, a button awarded its presser with a large sum of money and the knowledge that a stranger has died because of it. The ending, like so many of the best Twilight Zones, leaves viewers stunned.
Matheson penned perhaps the greatest television movie ever broadcast. Kolchak: The Night Strangler blended the fantastic with the all-too-real in a story of a vampire emerging from the urban underground to quench his thirst during the crime-ridden ’70s. It launched a television program starring Darren McGavin, and then, a few decades later, it inspired another, The X Files. The scripts of two of the best episodes — Squeeze and Tooms — paid homage to Kolchak: The Night Strangler.
Plagiarism, of course, is an unacknowledged ripoff. Homage means that you admit your debt. By casting McGavin in several X Files episodes, and featuring a “Senator Richard Matheson,” Chris Carter paid homage often to his inspiration.
One of the saddest aspects of this loss is the sense in which there will never be another Richard Matheson. This isn’t because Matheson’s talent eclipsed his contemporaries — Charles Beaumont and Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone stories generally surpassed his — but because mass media no longer highlights good literature. One can still find it amidst the 600-channel wasteland. Matheson’s life recalls a time when it found you.
There’s always DVD. That’s where I’ve been visiting Richard Matheson the past few days.