Fun facts about the author of I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
1. He was a huge influence on Stephen King. The king (pun intended) of contemporary American horror fiction has called Matheson ‘the author who influenced me the most as a writer’; Matheson’s vampire novel I Am Legend was, King has said, ‘an inspiration to me’. (We compiled some fascinating facts about King here.) Ray Bradbury, too, paid homage to Matheson, calling him ‘one of the most important writers of the 20th century’.
2. He wrote for the TV series The Twilight Zone and even penned the screenplay for an early Steven Spielberg film. The 1971 movie Duel was based on one of Matheson’s own short stories, which he adapted for the small, and then the big, screen. Like many of Matheson’s most famous narratives, it is ultimately about the loneliness of modern man – see Scott Carey and Robert Neville in The Shrinking Man and I Am Legend, below.
3. His most famous novel, I Am Legend, has been filmed three times. I Am Legend (1954) has been adapted for the big screen as The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and I Am Legend (2007). The most recent adaptation starred Will Smith in the role of the last man on Earth, who – along with his faithful canine companion – has to survive the hordes of vampires that now populate the planet. However, the film was also the inspiration for the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Matheson’s is a classic novel in a tradition of ‘last man’ narratives going back at least as far as Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel The Last Man. But it is also, of course, a vampire novel, in the tradition of Dracula and Carmilla.
4. Matheson read Bram Stoker’s famous vampire novel on the toilet. In his acceptance speech for a Horror Writers Association award in 2012 – which he won for penning ‘the vampire novel of the twentieth century’ – Matheson named a formative moment in his youth: during army training as a young man, he had read Dracula at night, while on the toilet. ‘I was pretty tired, I should have gone to sleep’, he said, but something about the novel compelled him to read on. Matheson’s innovation in the vampire fiction genre was to bestow an important element of science fiction on what was traditionally a purely supernatural narrative: everything about the vampiric state is given a credible scientific rationale in I Am Legend.
5. Matheson’s 1956 novel The Shrinking Man was inspired by a comedy film. According to Stephen King, Matheson got the idea for The Shrinking Man – which, along with I Am Legend, is regarded as his greatest contribution to science fiction and horror – after watching a 1953 comedy film, Let’s Do It Again, in which Ray Milland puts on the wrong hat. The hat comes down over his ears as it’s too big for him. What if Milland had actually begun to shrunk, Matheson began to wonder, and that was why the hat was too big for his head? Fittingly (since the novel was inspired by a film) The Shrinking Man has also been successfully adapted for the big screen, as The Incredible Shrinking Man. The novel is a tense and engaging tale about a man, Scott Carey, who, after coming into contact with radioactive waste, finds that he is shrinking at the rate of an inch per week. Once six feet tall, he is soon just one inch in height and living in his own cellar (aptly, Matheson wrote the novel in a cellar), estranged from his own wife and family, trying to avoid being eaten by the black widow spider that will soon be bigger than he is. (The original SF Masterworks reissue of this novel has a wonderfully chilling cover depicting this.) For our money, it is this novel as opposed to I Am Legend that is Matheson’s finest work, though many readers will disagree. But if you’re a fan of SF or horror and looking for something new to read, you could do far worse than pick up a copy of The Shrinking Man. It’s been reprinted in the SF Masterworks series: The Shrinking Man (S.F. MASTERWORKS).
Image: Richard Matheson in 2008, by JaSunni, via Wikimedia Commons.
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Always been a fan of Matheson and his work, although I was aware of I Am Legend due to the Will Smith film (which I still haven’t seen… or any of the other film versions), I was only alerted to it’s significance through an a documentary about literary Vampires on the extras of a DVD. So I read the book and enjoyed it immensely, you can see why he was recruited for scripting on the Twilight Zone. I Am Legend certainly would not look out of place in the series, especially when the episodes became double length. I think it is unsurprising that the iconic episode of the series comes from the pen of the much underrated genius that was Richard Matheson.
I’m interested in reading Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man.” Yes, Matheson has contributed tremendously to the modern-day obsession with vampires.