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Of monsters and men

Matheson tapped some deep vein where the fears of the 20th century gathered

Written by Jaideep Unudurti | Published: July 2, 2013 4:50:42 am

Matheson tapped some deep vein where the fears of the 20th century gathered

Press a button. Get a million dollars. But somewhere,someone on the planet will die. On an overpopulated earth,the elderly have to write an exam to prove they are still mentally fit. Fail,and the government executes you. A motorist on a lonely highway is stalked and harassed by a truck. A world overrun by vampires is terrorised by a monster who hunts them during the day.

These are some of the countless story ideas that originated in the fertile mind of Richard Matheson,who passed away at the age of 87 on June 23. Matheson populated the imaginations of a generation with monsters and demons,primal fears and hopes.

Working in the science fiction and horror genres,he assembled the basic building blocks of our cultural landscape. An overstatement? Consider: Here was a man who had influenced many of the totems of pop culture,from The X-Files to zombies,inspiring creators from Steven Spielberg to Stephen King. Anne Rice read one of his vampire stories as a child. His novel I am Legend brought forth a wave of zombies and vampires that we are still surfing today. As Neil Gaiman tweeted,“YOU KNOW HIS STORIES,even if you think you don’t”.

My first contact with Matheson was through Doordarshan back in the 1980s. A telefilm featuring a young couple,struggling to make their way through life,who are confronted by a mysterious stranger. He presents them with a box with a button on it. All you have to do is press it,and get a suitcase full of cash. The catch: someone on the planet,a stranger to you,will die as a consequence.

Years later I realised that the source for this telefilm was a Twilight Zone episode that had been tweaked by the Mandi House mandarins to suit the desi palate. Zone was a TV show created by impresario Rod Serling. Its famous intro,“You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension—a dimension of sound,a dimension of sight,a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance,of things and ideas”,was also its mission statement. This mix of SF and horror,underpinned by shrewd social commentary and relying on plot “twists” was the perfect playground for Matheson. Many of these episodes would go on to inspire films as diverse as Spielberg’s Poltergeist,and the Hugh Jackman-starrer Real Steel.

Matheson was the master of the high concept. His metier were “what-if?” ideas that could be easily pitched to studio bosses or editors. His scenarios,streamlined with propulsive narration and unadorned prose,always found takers. In an era when craft was king,Matheson knew the rules of each genre — SF,horror or thriller — skipping between them with ease,sometimes combining them with shocking effect.

King has called Matheson the greatest influence on his writing. The American tradition of horror had been dominated by Poe and Lovecraft,with their baroque characters and cosmic fears. Matheson changed the game with his tales of a common man against a malevolent universe. His story Duel is a good example,where a random incident of road rage spirals into a hellish chase on a deserted highway. Matheson was approached by a 25-year-old unknown director called Spielberg,who wanted to turn this into a full-length feature.

Matheson tapped some deep vein,some trench where the fears of the 20th century shambled. His stories were the stories of a society that could vanish in one afternoon,in a pulse of thermonuclear light. His greatest work was probably I am Legend,butchered repeatedly by Hollywood. George Romero made Night of the Living Dead as a homage. As Matheson said,“Homage means I can make the picture and I don’t have to pay you for your book”.

In a world of vampires,their worst nightmare would be a killer armed with stakes and silver,who hunts them down,unafraid of the sun. He would be their myth. This inversion is as terrifying as it’s logical. Much of the terror in Matheson’s tales stems from their remorseless logic,something which Hollywood never got.

Matheson himself had a cinematic imagination that lent itself to adaptation. “When I write anything — a short story,a novel — I see it in my mind like a movie” he once said. He had a lifelong interest in theosophy,an interest that permeated novels like Stir of Echoes and What Dreams May Come. Above all,he was a believer in the power of the imagination. “That which you think becomes the world” was a favourite quote.

He was still churning out stories right till the end. Asked what had been his career highlight,a few years ago,he was quick to reply,“It hasn’t come yet”. After I heard of his passing,I re-read a crumbling paperback of his 1954 collection Born of Man and Woman,purchased in a second-hand bookstore in Lakdi ka pul. More than half a century later,the stories still worked their spells. My favourite is “Mad House”,which deals with writer’s block. For someone as prolific,as facile as Matheson,that would have been the ultimate terror. The terror of the blank page.

Unudurti is a Hyderabad-based writer

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