I Am Legend author Richard Matheson was himself a real legend
BIOGRAPHY The man behind the best ever vampire novel was a major inspiration to innumerable stars of SF and horror
Posted by Alison FloodThe Guardian, Tuesday 25 June 2013 11.23 BST
Richard Matheson ... post-apocalyptic prince. Photograph: Raphael Gaillarde/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
I am meant to be writing a blog about how I Am Legend, by the late, immensely great, Richard Matheson, is the king of vampire novels. But after finding my old copy on the shelf downstairs, I've become somewhat distracted, and would really rather just get on with reading it.
The image Matheson provides, at the start of the novel, of Robert Neville alone in Los Angeles, is one of the most chilling, the most believable, in post-apocalyptic fiction. Shifting from practical and unemotional, to lonely and furious, Neville sits in his barricaded living room, trying to ignore the cries of the vampires, "their snarling and fighting among themselves", coming from the other side of the walls. Later, "he went from house to house and used up all his stakes. He had forty-seven stakes". So deadpan. So unnerving.
Then there are Matheson's vampires – written in 1954, and so much scarier, so much more interesting and memorable and believable, than the hordes of pallid high–school students who keep springing up today (and than the mobs in the Will Smith film version). Ben Cortman, howling outside his house every night. The corpses who walk the streets. And that ending! I won't give it away, for those who haven't read it, because it is just so disturbingly brilliant – but I'll remind those of you who already love the novel of the spine-chilling last line: "I am legend."
And so was Matheson, to so many readers and writers. In my edition of I Am Legend, Brian Lumley is quoted saying "a long time ago I read [the book], and I started writing horror at about the same time. Been at it ever since. Matheson inspires, it's as simple as that." Ray Bradbury, no less, calls him "one of the most important writers of the 20th century", Stephen King has said Matheson is "the author who influenced me the most as a writer", and that I Am Legend was "an inspiration to me", while the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls the novel "perhaps the very peak of all paranoid SF".
Last year, the Horror Writers Association named it vampire novel of the century, ahead of the likes of Salem's Lot and Interview with a Vampire; Anne Rice took her loss in good spirits, saying it wasn't hard to be beaten by "a man whose stories were inspiring me when I was still a kid writing everything with a ballpoint pen in a school notebook".
(I love, by the way, Matheson's acceptance speech for this award: he calls it "a rather dubious but interesting distinction", and speaks of how he first read Bram Stoker's novel during basic army training, on the toilet at night. "Why, I don't know. I was pretty tired, I should have gone to sleep," he said. "I enjoyed it at the time, never knowing I was going to write a book about vampires and certainly not that it would be derived from the idea I had when I first saw Bela Lugosi.")
Tributes have, of course, been pouring in for Matheson since news of his death was announced, with a particularly moving one from Harlan Ellison. "If there is anyone out there who didn't know I worshipped him, from his first story, Born of Man and Woman (which I read the day it was published back in 1950), to his second story, Witch War, on through every book – western, mystery, fantasy – for a supernova lifetime of writing mentioned in the same breath with Poe and Borges, then they haven't read my many encomia to Richard's singular top-of-the-mountain talent … Frankly, I am downsmashed," he wrote.
Steven Spielberg said that "Richard Matheson's ironic and iconic imagination created seminal science-fiction stories and gave me my first break when he wrote the short story and screenplay for Duel. His Twilight Zones were among my favourites, and he recently worked with us on Real Steel. For me, he is in the same category as Bradbury and Asimov."
"He was a giant, and YOU KNOW HIS STORIES, even if you think you don't," tweeted Neil Gaiman. The horror author Joe Hill wrote: "Never met Richard Matheson, but his stories have been life companions. Books are human souls, in analog form. Go read his."
What a sad year it has been so far for the passing of science fiction legends: Jack Vance, Iain (M) Banks, and now Richard Matheson. I'm going to take Hill's advice and carry on reading I Am Legend, with The Shrinking Man lined up next. RIP Richard Matheson.