The Loneliness of Richard Matheson’s Sci-Fi
Richard Matheson was the author of dozens of fantasy and science fiction novels, many of which were adapted for film and television. His son Chris Matheson, cocreator of the Bill and Ted movies, explores his complicated relationship with his father in the new book Conversations With the Father.
“If you’re interested in my dad, if Richard Matheson is a character of interest to you, if his stories have been important to you in any way, I think I have a very specific vantage point on this guy,” Chris says in Episode 520 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I was his kid, and I was very, very close to him for a long time.”
In novels such as I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, and A Stir of Echoes, Richard Matheson combined wild sci-fi concepts with relatable everyday characters. It was an approach that would have a profound influence on later authors, such as Stephen King. “[Matheson] stripped away a lot of the gothic/cobwebby/dark mansion/candlelight quality out of horror, and he brought in reality and this sense of verisimilitude,” Chris says. “I Am Legend is really striking for the sense of realism that he gets, the sense of ‘What would it actually be like to be the last person alive in a world that’s filled with vampires?’”
Richard Matheson’s great theme was loneliness. Over and over he writes about isolated men struggling to survive against insurmountable odds. In Conversations With the Father, Chris recalls his father’s difficulty connecting with other people. “He and my mom had a lot of friends, they socialized a lot, but I don’t know whether he had a close friend, is the thing,” Chris says. “I’m not sure there was anyone he could really open up to. I’m not sure he ever had another man that he could actually reveal himself to, and talk openly to about his feelings.”
Chris believes that his father used two strategies to cope with his feelings of loneliness. One was to take comfort in the company of animals—his love of dogs comes through powerfully in novels such as I Am Legend and What Dreams May Come—and the other was to throw himself into his work. “This is a guy who went down to his little office—which was a converted barn, essentially—and he’d be in his office for eight hours by himself,” Chris says. “And he loved it—or he needed it. He thrived on it.”
Listen to the complete interview with Chris Matheson in Episode 520 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Chris Matheson on adaptation:
[My dad] was a very economical and efficient storyteller. He used to describe what he thought was a good piece of writing as “it’s as clean as a hound’s tooth.” That’s how he used to put it. And that’s how his stuff is sometimes, it’s just bang-bang-bang-bang. And that can make for a pretty good movie because with a movie, you just don’t have that long. You have a couple hours. I Am Legend is not a really long book. It’s 160 pages. … And so his already lean and economical stories lend themselves really well to film. It’s astounding how many movies have been made from his stories.
Chris Matheson on Thinking and Destiny by Harold Percival:
[My dad] loved it and embraced it, and it became his bible, in effect, so much so that eventually he wrote a book called The Path, which is his popularization of Harold Percival’s book. To the degree that if you google “Harold Percival,” if you look at his Wikipedia entry, it will basically say that his greatest adherent in the world is Richard Matheson, which I think is true. And the book is ridiculous. The book is laughable. The book is gassy and pompous and just fraudulent and dumb as hell. I couldn’t believe it when I read it. It was like, “Dad, how can you believe this? How can this be possible?” My dad was an intelligent man. Fear trumps all, I think.
Chris Matheson on What Dreams May Come:
I knew he was writing this book where [our family] were all going to be characters … I remember saying to him, “Dad, I don’t understand. You die and go to heaven, and then mom kills herself and goes to hell. That’s a weird story to tell.” And he’s like, “Well, what else could it be?” And I was like, “Well, I don’t know. You could go to hell, right?” And he’s like, “Oh, that makes no sense.” But I thought that was weird, and it kind of pissed my mom off. She didn’t really like it. It was weird for her because there’s this long love letter to her at the end. But she kills herself because she can’t live without him and goes to hell, and he comes from heaven and saves her. It’s kind of strange.
Chris Matheson on Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure:
I believe we did [the police station scene] pretty much on set or the day before. This was written in the moment. I guess what we’d written didn’t work, and so I remember Ed Solomon, my partner, throwing out this [time travel] idea. And my first reaction was like, “Wow, that’s really complicated. Is that going to work?” It just took me a minute to kind of get my head around it. Then it was like, “Oh right. Well, that’s really funny.” And then we wrote it really, really quickly, and the jokes seemed very fresh. When you push into new territory, you potentially can get some funny jokes.
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