I’ll say it right now and I’m not ashamed: every year I watch parts of the great Twilight Zone marathon that one TV station or another has broadcast around New Year’s Eve for decades now. During those hours, I almost feel like I’m in a temporal twilight zone of my own, hovering indecisively between the past (the early 1960s, to be exact) and the present – and just as the calendar flips from one year to the next.
One name you can’t help noticing when you watch the classic episodes of the Rod Serling-created show, which ran from 1959-1964, is that of Richard Matheson. Speculative fiction fans of more recent vintage than yours truly might know him better as the writer of I Am Legend, the 1954 novel that spawned the 2007 Will Smith movie of the same name along with two earlier films, not to mention much of the vampire and zombie-apocalypse stories that have enlivened (if that’s the right word) pop culture nonstop since Night of the Living Dead.
But to me, Richard Matheson will always be the man behind some of my all-time favorite Twilight Zone episodes. He wrote “The Invaders,” which might be my all-time number one. It stars Agnes Moorehead as a nearly mute woman living alone in an old country house noisily landed upon by a flying saucer. I’ve never grown tired of watching her, half-melted with fear, wordlessly fighting off the tiny invaders.
Space travelers also figured in an early Matheson episode, 1959’s “And When the Sky Was Opened,” whose Rod Serling teleplay was based on a Matheson short story. A test flight carrying three astronauts disappears from radar, then reappears. The spacemen appear to return safely, but something about reality has been altered, and one by one the three men disappear – from history. No plausible (or even highly speculative) explanation is offered; it’s just one of those bizarre things that happen in the T.Z., like airplanes traveling through time (as in the Matheson episode “The Last Flight” and the better-known “The Odyssey of Flight 33”) and swimming pools hiding gateways to a happier life.
Matheson explored automation in the 1963 episode “Steel,” a tale of a near-future in which boxing has been outlawed. Lee Marvin plays a former fighter now managing a robot boxer called Battling Maxo. In a typically multi-layered conception, the writer envisioned not just a world of robot boxers but a particular automaton whose outdated skills just won’t cut it anymore. The story resonates with today’s world of planned obsolescence, in which we throw out perfectly functional TVs, phones, computers, and appliances as improved models swiftly come along. Richard Matheson was thinking about this half a century ago.
1962’s “Little Girl Lost” is one of the creepiest Twilight Zones of all. A little girl vanishes from her bed. Her parents can hear her calling, but she’s nowhere to be seen, having mysteriously fallen into another dimension. Something I wasn’t aware of until today: According to Wikipedia, Matheson wrote this “based on a real-life incident involving his young daughter, who fell off her bed while asleep and rolled against a wall. Despite hearing her daughter’s cries for help, Matheson’s wife was initially unable to locate her daughter.” The story of “Little Girl Lost” recurred, to even scarier effect, in the movie Poltergeist, which I’ve always felt must have been inspired by this Twilight Zone episode.
The Matheson-penned “A World of Difference,” about identity confusion between a character in a drama and the actor playing that character, was reflected many times in later tales, perhaps most notably the Jim Carrey film The Truman Show.
Probably Matheson’s most famous episode is “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the now-iconic story of a man recovering from a mental breakdown who looks through an airplane window and sees a gremlin tearing at the wing. The episode, which took on an added layer of cultural significance because it starred William Shatner, was remade in 1983’s ill-starred Twilight Zone: The Movie, with John Lithgow in the Shatner role.
Matheson also wrote the episode that scared me the most, by far, when I was a child. In “Night Call,” an old woman receives a series of phone calls, hearing at first only static, then a man’s voice moaning “Hello.” Back then I didn’t realize that the macabre payoff is based on an urban legend – all I knew was that it scared the hell out of me. When I catch it on the New Year’s Eve marathon it still gives me a thrill.
Matheson could do that: get your mind working, send a chill through your soul, and everything in between. He crafted stories that presaged modern realities, predicting what dreams may come as well as any of the greatest 20th century writers of speculative prose fiction did. And he had a knack for exposing in subtle ways the weird dark side of humanity. For that, just watch Duel, Steven Spielberg’s first feature film, based on a Matheson story.
Richard Matheson died on Sunday in Los Angeles. He will be missed.