Richard Matheson: a look back

On June 23, 2013, we lost one of the best, and best known, short story and horror writers of the day: Richard Matheson. Matheson touched me in ways few authors have thus far. Here’s why we should all morn this great author.

First, Richard Matheson wrote some of the scariest stories available. 

With a knack for bringing the macabre of Lovecraft but including the science fiction “be forewarned” aspects of such writers as Arthur C. Clarke, Matheson wrote the only book that ever frightened me: Hell House. He also was the inspiration behind such box office flops as The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man, I am Legend (all based on the same I am Legend novella), The Box (based on the brilliant short story, Button Button), Legend of Hell House, and boat loads more.

Almost almost all his stories had a message (something that is generally missing from today’s horror and science fiction). Even his short stories like The Box are truly masterpieces of the art. They are easy to read, easy to comprehend, and can scare the living daylights out of the best of us.

Second, rare is the short story author that does short stories correctly. However, Richard Matheson also implements the same philosophy in his longer fiction.

A short story should be drag you in, it should be punchy, and best of all, it needs an ending that smacks you in the face so hard, you think you’ve missed something. Every single one of Matheson’s stories that I’ve read come with this finale.

Too many people today write short stories the way they write poetry. It seems writers are only concerned with word choice, prettiness of prose, and not about the story or its structure. Sure, stories need a hook to start. But, like This American Life seems to do with every freaking story, you get hooked, you fall in love with the characters and the plot and the prose, and then everything falls flat because the story never comes to a conclusion. It simply falls flat, leaving you empty and jilted.

Third, each story has a point to it beyond great storytelling and scary ghost stories.

Button Button, still one of my favorite short stories ever, is about a woman who is propositioned with a box and a button. The proposition: push this button and you will receive a lot of money; however, doing so will kill someone you do not know. She learns her lesson in the end.

Now, I have not been able to follow this story back to its philosophical roots, but a similar hypothetical ethical issue rose up in more than one Ethics course I took. Which came first? I don’t know. But what I do know is that I love it.

Richard Matheson was a prolific author to which I try to emulate regularly. He is only one of a very small handful of authors I aspire to be like that has not won some of the biggest awards in the writing world.

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