The Loneliness of Richard Matheson’s Science Fiction

Richard Matheson was the author of dozens of fantasy and science fiction novels, many of which have been adapted for film and television. His son Chris Matheson, co-creator of the Bill and Ted films, explores his complicated relationship with his father in a new book Conversations with father.

“If you’re interested in my dad, if Richard Matheson is a character you’re interested in, if his stories have been important to you in any way, I think I have a very specific spot on this guy,” Chris says in episode 520. Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I was his child and I was very, very close to him for a long time.”

In novels such as I am a legend, The Shrinking Manand 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] it took a lot of the gothic/cobweb/dark fairy/candlelight horror out of horror, and brought it to reality and that sense of verisimilitude,” says Chris. “I am a legend is really striking because of the sense of realism it gets, the sense of ‘What would it really be like to be the last person alive in a world full of vampires?’

Richard Matheson’s big theme was loneliness. Time and again he writes about isolated men struggling to survive against insurmountable odds. U Conversations with father, Chris recalls his father’s difficulty connecting with other people. “He and my mom had a lot of friends, they hung out a lot, but I don’t know if he had a close friend, that’s the thing,” Chris says. “I’m not sure there was anyone he could really open up to. I’m not sure he’s ever had another man to whom he could open up and talk openly about his feelings.”

Chris believes his father used two strategies to deal with his feelings of loneliness. One of them was to take comfort in the company of animals – his love for dogs is strongly expressed in novels such as I am a legend and What dreams may come—and the second was to throw himself into his work. “This is a guy who went into his little office — which was basically a converted barn — and he’d be in his office for eight hours by himself,” Chris says. “And he loved it — or needed it. He succeeded in that.”

Listen to the full interview with Chris Matheson in episode 520 Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Chris Matheson on the adaptation:

[My dad] he was a very economical and efficient storyteller. He used to describe what he thought was a good piece as “clean as a dog’s tooth”. That’s how he used to say it. And that’s how his stuff is sometimes, just bang-bang-bang-bang. And it can be a pretty good movie because you just don’t have that much time with a movie. You have a few hours. I am a legend it’s not a very long book. It has 160 pages. … And that’s how his already lean and economical stories are filmed really well. It’s amazing how many movies have been made from his stories.

Chris Matheson is on Thinking and destiny by Harold Percival:

[My dad] he loved it and accepted it, and it actually became his bible, so much so that he eventually wrote a book called Road, which is his popularization of Harold Percival’s book. So much so that if you google “Harold Percival”, if you look at his Wikipedia entry, it will basically say that his biggest supporter in the world is Richard Matheson, which I think is true. And the book is funny. The book is funny. The book is gassy and pompous and just plain fake and stupid as hell. I couldn’t believe it when I read it. It was like, “Dad, how can you believe this? How is that possible?” My dad was an intelligent man. I think fear trumps all.

Chris Matheson is on What dreams may come:

I knew he was writing this book where [our family] they will all be characters… I remember telling him, “Dad, I don’t understand. You die and go to heaven, and then mom kills herself and goes to hell. It’s a strange story to tell.” And he’s like, “Well, what else could it be?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know. You could go to hell, right?” And he said, “Oh, that doesn’t make sense.” But I thought it was weird, and it kind of pissed my mom off. She didn’t like that very much. It was strange for her because it ended up being a long love letter to her. 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 a little weird.

Chris Matheson is on Bill and Ted’s Great Adventure:

I believe we are [the police station scene] mostly on set or the day before. This was written in the moment. I guess what we wrote didn’t work, so I remember Ed Solomon, my partner, throwing this out [time travel] an idea. And my first reaction was, “Wow, that’s really complicated. Will it work?” It only took me a minute to sort of get my head around it. Then it was like, “Oh, right. Well, that’s really funny.” And then we wrote it really, really fast, and the jokes felt very fresh. When you push into new territory, you can potentially get some funny jokes.

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