Saturday, 29 June 2013

Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson, who died earlier this week, began his life as a writer with stories sold to the thriving SF and fantasy magazine market in the post-war period. His first published work was Born of Man and Woman, appropriately enough, which appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1950. Many of these short stories were later gathered together in the numbered series of Shock collections, whose 70s paperback editions had particularly lurid pulp covers which belied the quality of their contents. Which wasn’t to say that Matheson didn’t sometimes resort to slick fantasy plots which revolved around last minute revelations turning everything topsy-turvy: the desolate alien planet is really a post-apocalyptic earth, the beautiful woman has been an android all along, what was assumed to be heaven is really hell, and so on. But these cheap (albeit often rather effective) devices were generally an incidental way of rounding off the story with a memorable flourish. The true substance lay in their psychological portraits of characters confronting a universe which is beyond their comprehension or control.

Matheson is probably more widely known for his work in film and television, which he began to concentrate on from the late 50s onwards. Nevertheless, the written word was always at the heart of his screenwriting. Many of the original scripts he produced were actually adaptations of previously published novels. This was the case with The Incredible Shrinking Man, his 1956 novel, which was filmed the following year from his script. It displayed many of the preoccupations and concerns which would characterise his work over the following decades. The protagonist begins steadily to diminish in stature after being dusted by a cloud of atomic radiation. The use of radiation as a catalyst for his condition is in some ways nothing more than a casual, plot device of its time, used to explain away all manner of transformations and monstrosities. But the anxieties and fears which run through Matheson’s stories reflect an underlying unease trembling beneath the affluent surface of the Cold War America of the 50s and 60s, with the bomb as the everpresent threat hanging Damoclean above everyone’s head. We experience his existential angst via his narration of his inner thoughts. He becomes increasingly isolated in the world. In one particularly touching sequence, he makes temporary friends with a midget from a travelling circus whom he meets whilst going on a night walk through the local park. But soon he has begun to recede from her too, and is left all the more lonely. The shrinking man is also driven to question his, and by extension humanity’s place in the universe. He has constantly to adjust to the changing nature of his relationship to his surroundings. These remain largely domestic throughout, but the family home becomes an environment as alien as any distant planet. The everyday made strange and frightening is another Matheson trait. The way in which the domestic environment becomes a comfortless, alienating and increasingly dangerous prison for the shrinking man can also be seen as an externalisation of mental disintegration. SF and fantasy is a great way in which to make the metaphorical real, to create solid manifestations of inner demons and subconscious fears. Matheson’s isolated characters are frequently taken to be delusional or mentally unbalanced. His famous Twilight Zone story Nightmare at 20,000 Feet features William Shatner as a nervous and twitchy (he was always good in such roles) airline passenger who has just recovered from a breakdown which occurred on a previous flight. This proves an added complication when he begins to see a gremlin scuttling about on the storm-lashed wing of the plane. If it would be difficult to credit someone babbling about an inhuman creature tampering with the engines in mid-flight, this goes double for someone with a known history of mental illness. Shatner’s character realises this, and from then on is another of Matheson’s characters who must face the incursion of the strange into the everyday alone.

The domestic setting of The Incredible Shrinking Man also reflects a certain amount of gender anxiety. The protagonist is confined to the home, where his wife increasingly towers over him. Matheson uses the fantastic to reflect social changes and the tensions which they create. There are broader Darwinian fears, too, as he ceases to be the dominant species in the food chain, eyed up first by the family cat and then by the scurrying spider in the basement into which he falls. A lengthy sequence details how he uses his brains to defeat the spider, which is now a deadly predator far too powerful and quick for him to escape without the use of all his native intelligence. The ending demonstrates an abiding spiritual side to Matheson’s work. As the shrinking man diminishes to the point of invisibility, he climbs out of the basement and enters the garden. He begins to contemplate the universe from the atomic scale, a recessive vastness as awe-inspiring as any cosmic distances. There is a persistence of consciousness as he effectively leaves the human world, however, and he talks of merging with creation, still a part of its fabric (this comes with a certain amount of Godly rhetoric, de rigeur for the climax of 50s SF films, although at least there are no Biblical quotations). Matheson would remain fascinated with this idea of the persistence of consciousness. The journey into an afterlife was central to his 1978 novel What Dreams May Come, turned into a film in 1995. Somewhere in Time, the 1980 film which he adapted from his 1975 novel Bid Time Return also re-united its time-crossed lovers beyond death.

Perhaps Matheson’s best known novel is I Am Legend, first published in 1954. It’s a rationalised fantasy, positing a world ravaged by a pandemic which has seemingly infected everyone but the protagonist, the first person narrator of the story. The disease with which humanity is infected brings with it many of the symptoms associated with the vampire of gothic fiction. These are all given biological or psychological explanations. Matheson was essentially bringing the monsters of the Romantic period into the godless modern age or scientific rationalism. His vampires are the precursors of the zombies which have now overrun horror cinema. But whereas zombies are reductive lumps of ambulatory meat, his creatures remain human, something which the protagonist of I Am Legend is forced to recognise in the end. He is another of Matheson’s lonely men, wandering the crumbling city streets alone in the daylight, holing up in his bunker before they emerge at nighfall. It’s a novel which has proved irresistible to Hollywood, but thus far they have flunked it. The first adaptation, Last Man on Earth (1964), was initially scripted by Matheson, but was altered so much that he all but disowned it. He was none too keen on The Omega Man (1971) either, although it has its moments, and is the best of the three. The 2007 film uses the original title, but is largely an excuse for cgi backdrops of a ruined and overgrown New York and plentiful zombie shoots. Matheson would bring the old monsters into blinking into the modern world once more in his two Kolchak the Night Stalker TV movies. These featured an investigative reporter stumbling across the supernatural in the brightly lit world of Chicago; in the first case a vampire, and the second an immortal murderer who keeps himself alive with human blood. Of course, no-one believes the slightly shifty Kolchak, and although he defeats the forces of darkness, his stories never see the light of day. The Legend of Hell House (1973), adapted from his 1971 novel Hell House, is also a rationalised fantasy, with Roddy McDowell’s scientist conducting empirical experiments to reveal the secrets of a haunted house.

Matheson translated the work or other writers’ work for the screen as well as his own. Night of the Eagle (1961) is a particularly fine adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s novel of campus rivalry manifested through the witchcraft practised by faculty wives to promote the careers of their husbands. It’s another story in which gender anxieties are central. Peter Wyngarde’s professor’s horror at the idea of the supernatural being real is as much to do with his disbelief in the notion that his wife could have had anything to do with his success as it is with the disruption of his rigidly held rationalist worldview. The script was a collaboration with Charles Beaumont, who was something of a fellow spirit. Both wrote some of the most memorable Twilight Zone stories, which were generally suffused with paranoia and psychological terror. They both also wrote the scripts for Roger Corman’s series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Matheson wrote the original run, beginning with House of Usher in 1960, followed by The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), the compendium Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963). These allowed his literary side to come out, and he provided some wonderful dialogue and dramatic setpieces for genre veterans like Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre. He also demonstrated a fine sense of comedy and the absurd in the hilarious wine-tasting scene in the Black Cat segment of Tales of Terror, in which the florid language of Vincent Price’s oenophile is contrasted by Peter Lorre’s more basic guzzler’s vocabulary; and in the voluble titular bird of the Raven, and its climactic magicians’ duel between Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. It’s particularly nice to see Boris showing a lighter side here.

Wine-tasting duel - Tales of Terror
My favourite Matheson moments come in his Twilight Zone stories, however, which for me are the best distillations of his dark art. This is horror which makes an impact on an existential as much as a visceral level. Nightmare at 20, 000 Feet is oft cited as the classical Twilight Zone story, but there are Matheson gems scattered throughout the five series aired between 1959 and 1964. Shatner stars again in Nick of Time as a young newlywed man who stops off at a diner with his new bride. He becomes obsessed with the novelty fortune telling machine at his table, which dispenses cards with aphoristic insights which seem to voice his inner thoughts. It’s a perfect expression of the underlying self-doubt which plagues someone who’s just setting out on an entirely new course in his life. Third from the Sun is a good encapsulation of Cold War anxieties, as two families of scientists involved in a rocket programme look to the future and find it to be short-lived as the world plummets headlong towards apocalyptic conflict. They steal the rocket and escape from what seems to be contemporary America. Of course, you guessed it, the planet they’ve identified as their new home is…Earth. The story nevertheless is a strongly and sympathetically observed depiction of common fears at the time. Little Girl Lost anticipates Poltergeist in its tale of the young daughter of an ordinary American family who falls through into some noplace dimension from which her frightened voice can be heard in her bedroom. Another tale of domestic fears, its atmosphere is notably enhanced by Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant score. A World of Difference is a psychological tale in which a man’s ordinary day’s work at the office is suddenly disrupted by the cry ‘cut’, at which point he discovers that his whole life is nothing more than a film script, his office prop flats. It’s a plot which makes manifest the protagonist’s alienation from his own routine existence, the feeling that he’s not altogether present in his own life.

Matheson displayed his comical side once again in Once Upon A Time, in which he gave Buster Keaton the chance to show off a few routines, old and new, in his role as a nineteenth century janitor who inadvertently dons a time-travelling helmet which plunges him into the present day. And When The Sky Opened is a genuinely unsettling metaphysical horror story, seen from the point of view of one of three astronauts returning to earth from a pioneering rocket launch into deep space. They have no recollection of what went on up there, and then one of them simply vanishes. But this is no ordinary disappearance. He has ceased to exist, at this or any point in time. Newspaper headlines now report that tow astronauts went into space, and no-one can recall the colleague about whom our protagonist makes increasingly frantic enquiries. When the second astronaut suffers a similar fate, he is left alone, the sole witness to a reality which is being systematically edited. He realises that he will be the next to be erased by whatever force has been set in motion. We never discover the nature of that force – no trite revelations here, just an acknowledgement that there are vast and unknowable mechanisms at work in the universe, in the face of which human lives count for very little.

Lee Marvin in android drag - Steel
In Steel, Lee Marvin plays a boxing promoter in a future world (1974!) in which fighting has been abolished. The sport continues with android combatants, however, and it is one of these that he carts around the country on Greyhound buses, his weary mechanic in tow. Their machine is an obsolete model which has long seen better days. It pops a spring and gives up the ghost before the fight is about to begin. Marvin’s character, a sweaty, desperate hustler who’s fallen well behind the game, decides to take to the ring himself rather than forfeit the money. Inevitably, he takes a bloody pounding from the dispassionate machine he faces, and gets roundly booed for putting up such a poor show. Collapsing onto the floor of the ‘workshop’ changing rooms, he sends the mechanic out to get the money, and has to accept, through bloodied teeth, when he comes back with just half. It’s a compellingly bleak tale of human beings struggling to survive at the bottom of the heap, unable to adjust to a mechanised world which has made them redundant. Marvin’s heroic if foolhardy stand goes entirely unnoticed, and he leaves town completely humiliated, but still determined to carry on with his pitifully outmoded fighter, Battling Maxo. Rod Serling’s customary summation reads the story as a parable of the indomitable human spirit. That seems a hopelessly optimistic interpretation of this sombre and downbeat tale.

Howling into the storm - Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet has been mentioned already. But what a masterpiece of pacing and sustained tension it is. Set within a claustrophobic environment, the interior of a small plane, it slowly builds up from initial glimpses of the gremlin to Shatner’s character’s realisation that he alone can act to save the plane and everyone in it. To do so he must behave in a way which will make everyone think he has lost his mind once more. The story reaches its climax as he is sucked out of the emergency exit window, tenuously harnessed by his safety belt, and faces the beast which slowly stalks towards him along the wing in the howling rain. The camera focuses in on his screaming face as he aims his wild shots with the gun he has lifted from a security guard – a moment of cathartic intensity as he is loosed from the confines of the plane and from his artificially maintained façade of calm sanity. It’s not difficult to see how this particular story has lodged in the minds of so many who have seen it over the years. It was inevitable that it would be one of the episodes chosen for the anthology film made in the 1980s. Matheson would enjoy pushing Shatner to the edge again in the Star Trek episode which he wrote, The Enemy Within. Kirk's personality is sheared off into two distinct entities when the transporter goes awry - a good Kirk and a bad one. Perhaps he realised that Shatner was at his best when playing neurotic or psychotic characters.

Night Call derives from an early short story published in 1953, Long Distance Call, and expands upon it to produce an emotionally draining tale which once again makes maximal use of a confined space. An old woman, Miss Keene, house and wheelchair-bound, receives a phone call in the middle of a storm-tossed night, and is plagued by further calls thereafter. The caller on the other end of the line is initially inaudible, but soon begins to emit pained groans, and then an effortful ‘hello (spelled out ‘h-e-l-l-o’ in the story), as if he has not uttered words for a very long time and is unused to their sounds. Miss Keene, who has been persistently calling the exchange about her nuisance calls, is finally informed that a team has come to repair the storm-damaged line near her home. She couldn’t have been receiving any calls, they tell her. The line has come down – over the cemetery. In the Twilight Zone episode, we go on to discover that the lines are grounded in the grave of her fiancé, who had died many years ago as a result of her negligent driving. She had been a domineering companion, controlling his simple and passive soul. She realises that it was him who had been trying to get through to her on the phone, and wills him to call her again. But she had told him to let her be, and he once more obeys her command, leaving her alone and desolate in her remote house. The Twilight Zone version has a powerful emotional charge. But it does lack the kick of the original story’s final line, in which the anonymous graveyard caller rings again and says ‘hello, Miss Elva. I’ll be right over’.

The amazing Agnes Moorehead in The Invaders
My favourite of Richard Matheson’s Twilight Zone stories is The Invaders. It’s a bold and stark drama which is almost entirely free of dialogue, and is a one-hander. As such, it’s the purest expression of his lonely person theme. It’s set in a remote farmhouse inhabited by a solitary, independent woman. On one calm, still night a spaceship crash lands onto her roof. It’s a small vessel, a classic 50s saucer. In fact, it’s the model used in Forbidden Planet, a film whose props and sets turn up in several Twilight Zone episodes (Robbie the Robot even makes a special guest appearance in one). The story details the woman’s increasingly desperate attempts to fight off the tiny invaders, robotic figures which sting her with burning ray guns, stab at her with her own kitchen knives, and burn entrance holes in the wainscoting like mice. Matheson’s economical script benefits immensely from an extraordinary, bravura performance by Agnes Moorehead, who makes us feel the bewilderment and escalating desperation of this beleaguered but strong and indefatigable woman. Jerry Goldsmith’s score also ratchets up the tension throughout, and he is wise enough to know when silence is more effective than any sound. In the end, the woman climbs up on to the roof and smashes the miniature spaceship with an axe. We feel a sense of triumph before hearing the distress call emanating from the wrecked vessel, announcing the disastrous termination of the mission. The menacing little robots are given ordinary human names. The camera pans around and, yes, the insignia reads USAF Probe. It’s an Earth ship which has found itself on a planet of giants. But it has been pre-emptively aggressive and belligerent, assaulting a lone woman in her home. There’s a definite anti-militaristic slant here, and we can feel no sympathy for the tiny people whatsoever as they face their end so far from home. This is a daring and brilliantly sustained piece of minimalist storytelling. It anticipates the similarly concise and single-minded Duel (1971), Stephen Spielberg’s early TV film which was based on a Richard Matheson short story.

I watched Steel, Night Call, Nightmare at 20, 000 Feet and The Invaders last night as a tribute to Richard Matheson. What a treat it was. There’s no better way to remember his singular talent, so go out and find them now.

1 comment:

robin said...

I will!

Matheson has always been a favourite but there are many of his adaptations I have not seen.