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During an airline flight a passenger sees a demon sitting outside on the wing, chewing away at the engine.

A salesman on a road trip is terrorized by an anonymous truck driver on a desolate road in the Californian desert.

A virus has caused all mankind to mutate into vampires – only one man appears to be immune and is unchanged. He truly is the last man on earth, and he won’t go without a fight…

The chance that you recognize one of these three storylines is very high – either you have seen one of them, or you have seen some other form of film, tv or comic book which it has influenced. You know them even if you haven’t seen or read any of them. All of these three stories were written by Richard Matheson (1926 – 2013), a writer and screenwriter of science fiction, horror, fantasy and thrillers.

His work has been adapted many times for film and tv, either by self-written screenplay-adaptations, or by screenwriters using his literary work as the source material. And while Matheson is not a household name in popular culture as for example a Stephen King is, the importance and influence of his work cannot be underestimated – especially in the genre of horror. His work is even featured in a Penguin Classic publication, something which is highly uncommon for a contemporary genre writer. (On a side note – only one horror writer still in his mortal coil has received that honour: Thomas Ligotti).

Mythic Tales and Legends

In the introduction of the Penguin Classic writer Victor Lavalle praises the success and accessibility of Matheson’s tales, talking here about his screenwork for the tv-series “The Twilight Zone”: “The clarity of the language, the promise of a pleasing mystery, the mounting tension of the confrontation—the revelation—to come, and the cool satisfaction of seeing Matheson pull off this magic again and again and again (and again).”

Matheson is also one the first writers to situate horror in the mundane world: “into our shopping malls and peaceful neighborhoods – into the house next door” as described by Douglas Winter in the book On Writing Horror. In this way Matheson is clearly of great influence on Stephen King, the ‘king’ of grand horror situated in small blue-collar environments.

But there is another reason why Matheson’s work resonates so deeply in the minds of viewers and readers. Most of his stories start with a simple, clear conflict and storyline, but evolve into something bigger at the end. They transcend their given time, location and characters and transform into tales with a larger epic scope: timeless and with mythical proportions.

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Let’s examine how this works in three of his stories: the short story “The Distributor”, his short story and screenplay for “Duel”, and the novella “I am Legend”. (And be warned: there will be major spoilers up ahead!)

“The Distributor”

“The Distributor” – published in 1958 in Playboy – starts like this:

July 20.

Time to move.
He’d found a small, furnished house on Sylmar Street. The Saturday morning he moved in, he went around the neighborhood introducing himself.
“Good Morning,” he said to the old man pruning ivy next door. “My name is Theodore Gordon. I just moved in.”

Newcomer Theodore Gordon quickly introduces himself to all his new neighbors and fellow townspeople. It is a friendly and quiet American suburb, where people live out their happy and quiet lives. But Gordon has a sinister purpose: to destroy the community. But he never resorts to using violence himself. Instead his highly effective tools are gossip, lies and small-scale actions and manipulations to spread paranoia, fear and hatred. He causes people to commit crimes, suicide, and severely disrupts the peaceful suburb.

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However, this doesn’t bring any form of (perverse) pleasure or joy to Gordon (or whatever his real name is), nor is he out for vengeance. His motives remain obscure.

The ending paragraph however might shed some light on Gordon:

That night, in his office, he made his entries on page 700 of the book.

Mrs. Ferrel dying of knife wounds in local hospital. Mrs. Backus in jail; suspects husband of adultery. J. Alston accused of dog poisoning, probably more. Putnam boys accused of shooting Alston’s dog, ruining his lawn. Mrs. Putnam dead of heart attack. Mr. Putnam being sued for property destruction. Jeffersons thought to be Negroes. McCanns and Mortons deadly enemies. Katherine McCann believed to have had relations with Walter Morton, Jr. Morton, Jr. being sent to school in Washington. Eleanor Gorse has hanged herself. Job completed.

Time to move.

You can be sure that there are still a lot of blank pages left in Gordons book. And that he will continue filling them. It is this methodic evilness that transcends the story into the mythic. Who is Gordon? A KGB secret agent? A psychopath? The antichrist? Whatever he truly is, in many ways he is just doing his job. And his job was to squeeze the dirty pimple that Sylmar Street is, until it pops, and the pus comes squirting out. The pus being the latent hatred, jealousy and racism that was always present in the community.

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The influence of this story can be clearly felt in the Stephen King novel Needful Things, where a shop owner manipulates his customers to increasing violence and hate. And writer F. Paul Wilson wrote a sequel to “The Distributor” named “Recalled”, which can be found in this collection. And finally, Matheson adapted “The Distributor” into a screenplay that was never produced, but can be read here.

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Duel and The Distributor by Richard Matheson. Gauntlet Press, 2004

“Duel”

The 1971 “Duel” also started as a short story in Playboy and was consequently adapted by Matheson himself into a screenplay. The film is the second (made for TV) feature directed by Steven Spielberg, which definitely sky-rocketed his career.

In Duel middle-aged salesman David Mann is driving on a business trip in the Californian desert. In passing an old tanker truck he annoys the truck driver, who starts taunting and stalking him. The conflict between the truck and Mann quickly escalates, with the truck driver first trying to trick Mann into having an accident, and finally trying to kill him maniacally while chasing him.

Duel is a riveting, fast paced and bare bones tale about a David (Mann) fighting a Goliath truck. It is a masterwork in suspense, tension and mounting action. What starts off as a small scale ‘road rage’ incident escalates into something primeval: a mythic fight for survival of the fittest and smartest. It also becomes a tale of what we as a society expect of masculinity. It contrasts the soft, almost nerdy Mann (his wife berates him for not standing up for her) with the ultra-masculine truck driver. We never get to see the truck driver, catching only glimpses of his macho presence: his blue jeans, cowboy boots, his arms. The truck driver becomes an iconic masculine persona: decisive, aggressive, not to be messed with. (Check out Jeepers Creepers for a more modern take on the same basic premise.)

The archaic and primal quality of this conflict culminates in the final showdown: Mann lures the truck off a cliff and escapes from his car just in time. He watches his empty car and the truck crashing down. This resembles ancient huntings method like the Buffalo Jump, where men used their wits to lure and kill animals. Like Native Americans hunted bisons, and ancient man mammoths.

The final moments of the story are with Mann, who realizes his victory as he is gazing down the cliff.

Then, unexpectedly, emotion came. Not dread, at first, and not regret; not the nausea that followed soon. It was a primeval tumult in his mind: the cry of some ancestral beast above the body of its vanquished foe.

And this depiction is expanded in the ending of the screenplay:

ANGLE ON MANN as he looks down at the burning truck and trailer, all feeling drained from him. Camera moves in slowly on his face as emotions manifests itself; not dread, not regret, not sickened withdrawal. As his face fills the screen, we see, instead, an expression of primeval victory clutching at his features – the look of some ancestral brute regarding the body of his vanquished foe. And from deep in his throat comes a recidivistic blood cry.

Note the words primeval, ancestral, vanquished foe, blood cry. And not just any blood cry – a recidivistic blood cry. Mann has tasted victory after the battle. He is forever changed and will always want more of that same taste.

I Am Legend

Probably Matheson’s most influential work is his short novel I Am Legend from 1954. It was several times adapted for the screen, most notably in 2007 with Will Smith in the lead role. But to be honest, none of these films really capture the spirit of the original material – especially not this Hollywood-happy-ending-deus-ex-machina cropolite, though Smith is charming (as always) and creates an iconic performance.

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I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. Corgi Books, 1960

Before we get into the story and its mythic scope, let’s talk about its legacy and influence. Zombie godfather George Romero openly called I am Legend his primary inspiration for Night of the Living Dead. So without Matheson, no Romero zombie, thus also no Brian Keene’s The Rising, no 28 Days Later, no Shaun of the Dead, no “White Walkers”, no “The Walking Dead” and actually no zombie apocalypse trope at all.

All because of one short novel from 1954. Think about that.

The story? A worldwide pandemic has caused all humans to die and has changed the remaining ones in vampires. Only one man is unaffected, Robert Neville. During daytime, Neville hunts for the nocturnal monsters, killing and slaying as much of them as he can. At night he locks himself up in his barricaded shelter and investigates the disease and its bacteria. After several years he discovers another person still alive: Ruth. But all is not what it seems.

— FOUNDATIONS OF HORROR —

Further explore these subgenres & tropes. more>>
#Zombie horror | #Vampire horror

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Ruth is actually a new kind of vampire. After all those years some of the vampires have evolved and are trying to form a new culture and society, with steps taken to bring back order and an organized society. Ruth was sent to capture Neville, at which she succeeds. Neville will soon be publicly executed, but Ruth leaves him a suicide pill to ease his suffering. In a note she explains her intentions:

When I was first given the job of spying on you, I had no feelings about your life. Because I did have a husband, Robert. You killed him. But now it’s different. I know now that you were just as much forced into your situation as we were into ours. We are infected. . . . What you don’t understand is that we’re going to stay alive. We’ve found a way to do that and we’re going to set up society again slowly and surely. We’re going to do away with all those wretched creatures whom death has cheated. And, even though I pray otherwise, we may decide to kill you and those like you.

As Deborah Christie writes in her academic paper on the novel it is Neville who “has become the threat, the virus, the social contaminant that must be removed like a tumor before the social body can reform and heal. Capturing and destroying Robert Neville has become the new society’s foremost goal, and it becomes apparent to the readers that we have been identifying humanness within an outdated context; Neville has become the monster and the vampires have become representatives of the post-human.”

Neville however does find some form of comfort when his death is imminent. It is actually he who is the big mythic monster, the great primal slayer.

They all stood looking up at him with their white faces. He stared back. And suddenly he thought, I’m the abnormal one now. Normalcy was a majority concept, the standard of many and not the standard of just one man. Abruptly that realization joined with what he saw on their faces — awe, fear, shrinking horror — and he knew that they were afraid of him. To them he was some terrible scourge they had never seen, a scourge even worse than the disease they had come to live with. He was an invisible specter who had left for evidence of his existence the bloodless bodies of their loved ones. And he understood what they felt and did not hate them. …

Robert Neville looked out over the new people of the earth. He knew he did not belong to them; he knew that, like the vampires, he was anathema and black terror to be destroyed.

The new society of vampires will tell tales for centuries to come about his ‘evil’ acts. He will live on forever in their culture as the specter of Death. In Matheson’s words closing words:

A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.
I am legend.

As is Richard Matheson himself a legend, whose stories and influence live on in our culture – whether we are consciously aware of that or not.

A List of Richard Matheson Books and Story Collections

Novels

Someone Is Bleeding (1953)
Fury on Sunday (1953)
I Am Legend (1954)
The Shrinking Man (1956)
A Stir of Echoes (1958)
Ride the Nightmare (1959)
The Beardless Warriors (1960)
The Comedy of Terrors (1964)
Hell House (1971)
Bid Time Return (1975)
What Dreams May Come (1978)
Earthbound (1982)
Journal of the Gun Years (1992)
The Gunfight (1993)
7 Steps to Midnight (1993)
Shadow on the Sun (1994)
Now You See It … (1995)
The Memoirs of Wild Bill Hickok (1996)
Passion Play (2000)
Hunger and Thirst (2000)
Camp Pleasant (2001)
Abu and the Seven Marvels (2002)
Hunted Past Reason (2002)
Come Fygures, Come Shadowes (2003)
Woman (2005)
The Link (2006)
Other Kingdoms (2011)
Generations (2012)
Kolchak: The Night Stalker: Nightkillers (2017) (co-written by Chuck Miller)

Story Collections

Born of Man and Woman (1954)
The Shores of Space (1957)
Shock! (1961)
Shock 2 (1964)
Shock 3 (1966)
Shock Waves (1970)
Button, Button (1970)
Richard Matheson: Collected Stories (1989)
By the Gun (1993)
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (2002)
Pride with Richard Christian Matheson (2002)
Duel (2002)
Offbeat: Uncollected Stories (2002)
Darker Places (2004)
Unrealized Dreams (2004)
Duel and The Distributor (2005)
Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008)
Uncollected Matheson: Volume 1 (2008)
Uncollected Matheson: Volume 2 (2010)
Steel: And Other Stories (2011)
Bakteria and Other Improbable Tales (2011)
The Best of Richard Matheson (2017)

(Banner image from The Best of Richard Matheson Penguin Classic.)

Last Updated on April 18, 2021.

Jasper Vrancken
Jasper Vrancken is a filmmaker, teacher and researcher, specializing in the horror genre. He teaches film and video production at the Luca School of Arts in Belgium, and is currently pursuing a PhD in the Arts. You can catch his work on his Vimeo page.

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