Richard Matheson 1926 – 2013

Cover illustration: Abu & The 7 Marvels

Richard Matheson, one of the key giants of this generation’s writers of the fantastic, has left us at age 87.

Richard Matheson should be a name as familiar to the public as Ray Bradbury. Matheson had a profound effect on my generation’s psyche, producing some of the most memorable tales of horror and fantasy that have ever been written, as stories for books and magazines as well as for television and movie screens.

At conventions, when I mention his name and get a blank look, I always say, “Oh, you may not realize it, but you know his work,” I explain. ” He wrote all the best Twilight Zone episodes for Rod Serling, including Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, the one with William Shatner and the gremlin on the wing of his airplane. He wrote Little Girl Lost, which got turned into Steven Spielberg‘s and Tobe Hooper‘s Poltergeist. Speaking of Spielberg, Richard wrote Steven’s first film as a director, Duel, which had Dennis Weaver being relentlessly pursued and tormented by a maddeningly mysterious someone in a huge truck. He wrote I Am Legend which, after three attempts, still hasn’t been properly translated to the screen. Richard is the author of the sci-fi classic, The Incredible Shrinking Man. He captured the romantic souls of audiences everywhere with Somewhere in Time (from his novel Bid Time Return) and What Dreams May Come. Matheson wrote Twilight Zone: The Movie. That great made-for-TV movie about a vampire loose in Las Vegas, (that spawned a TV series), The Night Stalker, was penned by Richard. He wrote that brilliant short story ‘Button, Button’ (which was unfortunately turned into an overpadded, flabby film version entitled The Box). Who can forget the Zuni fetish doll hellishly pursuing Karen Black all over her apartment in the TV anthology Trilogy of Terror? Roger Corman tapped Matheson to write his classic Edgar Allan Poe films. The Stranger Within, a gem of a thriller starring Barbara Eden, has become a cult favorite. And that’s the tip of this writer’s massive iceberg, my friend.”

At some early point during my recital I always catch the light of recognition in their eyes, for Richard Matheson has written stories that for so many people are their favorite stories in the world.

I feel incredibly lucky to not only have met Richard but to have gotten to know him and to have worked with him as well.

Our first collaboration was when in 1989 I was hired to design the decorations for the massive Scream Press tome Collected Stories. I thought I did a nice, decent job but I’d love to do it over. I feel I was just beginning to hit my creative stride with the decorations when the deadline arrived. I finished on time but I would have liked to have seen what would have resulted if I had been able to do about two dozen more spot illustrations.

Proposed Collected Stories Cover

I produced what I thought was one of my very best covers for the book — but Richard rejected it. He thought it was too psychedelic (it is sort of Grateful Dead-ish). That stung, as I had researched Richard’s life and incorporated many symbols of his life and career into the design of the cover. But C’est la vie, as the French say.

Around the year 2000 my friend Mick Garris invited me to a publication party being thrown in his honor by Gauntlet Press. I openly admired the care that went into the publications of Gauntlet Press and, out loud, said, “Why haven’t they ever asked me to illustrate one of their books?”

“You’d like to?” asked Gauntlet’s head, Barry Hoffman.

“Sure…”

“Would you like to illustrate a children’s book written by Richard Matheson?”

Are you kidding me? Richard Matheson has written a kid’s book?”

“Yes; it’s called Abu & The 7 Marvels.”

“I’m in.”

Illustrating Richard’s only children’s book was a total labor of love. To honor Richard I tried to surpass all that I had done in the past. First, I produced several elaborate and well-researched full color illustrations. I asked Barry to show them to Richard.

I got Matheson’s feedback pretty quickly.

“Richard’s concerned that they’re so serious. They’re not very funny, and it’s written as a very humorous book.”

I immediately produced nineteen very funny black and white illustrations to complement the color pieces. My goal exceeded what was asked of me; I wanted (and drew) an illustration for every chapter.

Richard was delighted. And, because Matheson was delighted, so was I.

It’s a gorgeous book, one that I am still very proud of to this day. Gauntlet Press’ production on the book is wonderful; the cover, with it’s hot foil gold embossing, looks like the sumptuous cover to an expensive box of chocolates.

We won a ton of awards with Abu & The 7 Marvels. Ray Bradbury (another Matheson fan) saw and immediately purchased the Frost Dragon illustration from me. Gauntlet and Matheson fans were delighted.

The Frost Dragon

I loved doing signings with Richard because they enabled me to get to know the man better. And the more I knew about Richard, the more I loved and respected him.

“I’ve had a lot of offers to turn Abu into a movie,” Richard confided in me at one of our signings.”

“That’s great! How’s that going?”

“I tell them that I’ll option it for the screen under one condition…”

“What’s that?”

“…that William Stout has to be the movie’s designer.”

RICHARD! Don’t do that! Take the dough! Don’t limit yourself!”

“No. You did such a beautiful job on the book; the designer has to be you.”

I just shook my head…but my admiration for Richard shot up several more levels.

Richard Matheson was a mensch, one of the finest, most thoughtful human beings I ever met.

I was hoping you would live forever, Richard. And, actually, you will — through the magic you put down on all those thousands of pages, through your hundreds of stories that have and will continue to touch the hearts and souls and chill the spines of current generations and generations to come.

Sleep well, my friend.

7 Responses to “Richard Matheson 1926 – 2013”

  1. He is definitely one of those writers who is far less known than some of his work is. He seemed to kind of fly under the radar of lots of folks who know the names of lesser talents.
    A personal fave of mine was Bid Tomorrow Return (I think that was the title) which was made into the Jane Seymour movie with Chris Reaves Somewhere in Time…sappy maybe, but awesome 😉

  2. Rick Catizone says:

    Nice story about how much he loved your work on Abu. Yes, it would have been great if it had been produced and you were the designer. Your work in that book is wonderful and the love you poured into it clearly shows.

    Yes, he did write the best TZs. Little Girl Lost really made me very uneasy. I was about 16, so no little kid, but it was very unnerving, especially given that I had my own weird experiences around that time.

  3. Jim says:

    Oh, yes, I am very aware of Richard Mathesons’ name. If I saw it as a writers credit on television I was instantly giddy with anticipation. For thirty minutes of programming his work was more engaging than any writers I can recall.

    These Illustrations posted for “Ubu and the Seven Marvels” are phenominal. I’m going to see if I can purchase a copy somewhere now.

  4. Bill says:

    @ Jim:
    The last time I looked, you could purchase Abu on this website… I sign each copy and draw a little sketch in each book.

  5. John says:

    A great talent! It would have been interesting to see Richard Matheson’s version of Jaws 3, or the considered parody version by John Hughes and Joe Dante. His kids have followed him into screenwriting, with Chris being the best known thanks to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

    The mention of Duel reminds me, Dennis Weaver would have made a good Peevy in the Rocketeer film since I read Dave Stevens based him in part on Doug Wildey.

  6. Aaron says:

    Two personal favorites were Duel and Prey.
    Both tightly written tales of a struggle for survival.
    And yes somebody really should do I Am Legend right
    as a film.

  7. Rick Tucker says:

    Sorry for commenting so late…. busy month.
    As a kid I didn’t follow writers or directors and only started paying attention to who was doing what when I started getting more deeply into music and reading. That lacking credit did not dissuade me as a young boy from appreciating scope and the grandeur of such film masterpieces as The Incredible Shrinking Man. At the end of the film when the protagonist realizes he will continue to shrink it should be a sad moment. After all, he just killed his greatest (and to me, SCARIEST) nemesis the spider. So shouldn’t there be some sad irony that after all of that he’s not “getting better”, but instead getting “worse”?
    Nope.
    He feels renewed by the realization. He feels such a profound sense of wonder at the things he will see and his part in the universe that he’s at peace with his fate.
    That gets to me every time I see the film.
    Matheson’s work often reminds of a gothic horror writer William Hope Hodgson. They both have the capacity to terrify me and then move on to what’s really going on, the growth, the acceptance and turmoil we face as I read and become more in tune with the wonder that surrounds us.This is especially the case in the things we feared that once seen are not so terrifying and often revelatory.
    So, little did I know until I was almost an adult that Richard Matheson had entertained me so often over the years.
    Bill, you were a lucky man to get to work with such talented and evocative story teller. Abu and the 7 Marvels is a great book and I wish there had been more to follow it.
    What a sad day it was when he passed but what a great man to have left such wonderful legacy for us all to continue to enjoy. He didn’t squander his gift.

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