Saturday, July 19, 2014

Richard Christian Matheson

The Master of the Short Horror Tale

By Steve Herte

Scars and Other Distinguishing Marks by Richard Christian Matheson (New York: Tor Books, 1988), 288 pages.

Read any good books lately? I just finished a dandy. A good friend recommended this to me, advising me to think of “Twilight Zone” and Stephen King while reading it. Well, that was all I needed to hear. Scars and Other Distinguishing Marks by Richard Christian Matheson (1988) is a collection of short stories featuring plot twists reminiscent of Twilight Zone episodes. In fact several of them were published in Twilight Zone Magazine.

I didn’t have to wait too long for the “Stephen King” part because the man himself wrote a glowing forward to the book, complimenting Matheson on style and amazing brevity while getting to the point of each story without wasting words. After having read 61 of Mr. King’s books, I trust his opinion implicitly and he did not disappoint. In addition, there is the introduction by Dennis Etchinson, another noted writer of fantasy and horror, author of The Dark Country (who tied with King in 1982 for the World Fantasy Award) that set my curiosity humming for Matheson’s tales.

This led me into an examination of Matheson himself. I originally had him confused with his famous father, but Richard Christian Matheson stands on his own, living proof that the acorn does not fall far from the tree. He was born on October 14, 1953, to Richard Burton and Ruth Matheson. His mother was a clinical psychologist, specializing in cases of substance abuse. His younger brother, Chris, is also a writer, with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) to his credit. Richard became a professional writer in 1978 and has written over 300 teleplays as well as screenplays for movies. When he’s not writing, he’s on the front lines for animal rights. And would it surprise anyone to learn that he’s also a ghost hunter?

Before we examine his television and motion picture work, let’s take a look at Scars. It’s a masterly collection of 26 short stories, one written in conjunction with his father, and a screenplay from Amazing Stories titled “Magic Saturday.”

I must admit that the first couple of stories were rather obtuse and had me wondering what Matheson was getting at, but then he hit his stride with the next tale and I was eager to find out what happened next and what will happen in the following story. Allow me to give brief encapsulations and you can be the judge of whether or not they entice.

"Third Wind” – A man trying to achieve a new personal best in his athletic running discovers he can’t stop.

"Sentences” – A man has his screwed-up life rewritten by a company called “Script Sure,” but they don’t consult the original scriptwriter.

"Unknown Drives” – A slow-moving farm truck driver frustrates an impatient driver in a Mustang on a narrow, two-lane road, deliberately.

Timed Exposure” – A couple uses a carnival photo booth that doesn’t print the photos until later and another customer sees they predict murder.

Obsolete” – A robot homeowner cans his old human woman servant.

Red” – A father is picking up the pieces of his daughter who got caught on the car door handle while riding her bike.

Beholder” – A woman artist paints herself into a steamy love scene.

Dead End” – A couple in a Porsche trying to bring the life back into their marriage can’t avoid a dead end (literally) in the Hollywood Hills.

Graduation” – Letters from college reveal a mysterious dorm room death and later a devastating fire but these experiences yield an “A” grade in Philosophy.

Conversation Piece” – The only story in interview format, a man explains how he enjoys selling his own body parts for a living to support his family.

Echoes” – A millionaire businessman suddenly hears screams and moans increasing in volume and pain and hurls himself out of a window.

Incorporation” – A yuppie learns that the meaning of “I am the corporation” is literal in this case – over an open fire.

Hell” – On a 100-degree-plus day in L.A., three cars block a woman’s car and push her over a cliff while the Doors “When the Music’s Over,” plays.

Break-Up” – A man leaves his brokenhearted lover, immediately forgets her and transforms into someone else.

Mr. Right” – A woman tells her psychiatrist about the psycho wife-beater she married but she can’t leave him because of his prowess in bed.

Cancelled” – A network “King of the Spin-offs” imagines dead versions of himself in his house and dies of fright.

Mugger” – A thieving team steals eyes for profit.

The Dark Ones” – A dolphin family flees human fishermen, told from their point of view.

Holiday” – Karl meets Santa Claus in Bermuda and gets a gift from his childhood.

Vampire” – All one-word sentences, no verbs, articles, conjunctions, prepositions.

Intruder” – An automated home protection system prefers to “remove” rather than “stun” intruders.

Dust” – A man living on Mars is conducting a war against dust.

Goosebumps” – A mysterious bump under a man’s skin is eating him from the inside and is growing.

Mobius” – A cop grills a retarded man into believing and confessing that he’s a serial killer.

Where There’s a Will” – A man wakes up buried in a coffin, claws his way out, and calls home from a gas station only to find out he really is dead.

Magic Saturday” (screenplay) – A grandfather and his grandson magically exchange bodies as Grandpa is about to die.

It just wouldn’t be a discussion of Richard Christian Matheson if I were negligent in examining his work for television and the movies.

Matheson’s teleplays run the gamut of the times – from Three’s Company to several episodes of The A-Team. But as time went on Matheson began to involve himself in the family business of writing and adapting tales of horror and the fantastic.

Sole Survivor (Columbia TriStar Television, 2000): This four-hour miniseries starring Billy Zane, Gloria Reuben and Isabella Hoffman is based on the best-seller by Dean Koontz. After his wife and daughter are killed in a plane crash, a newspaper reporter discovers that the crash may have been related to a secret scientific experiment involving children. A woman, who claims she was a survivor of the crash, approaches at his wife's grave. This leads into a plot by the Quartermass organization to capture her and a young girl she is protecting, for the girl has the powers to heal and to transport. A villainous killer and a young boy who can control minds from a distance lead the attack.

Masters of Horror (2005-2007): Matheson contributed two episodes to this highly-regarded horror series from Anchor Bay.

The Damned Thing (2005): Matheson and Mick Garris adapted this story by Ambrose Bierce. A monstrous force devastates Sheriff Kevin Reddle's family and his small Texas town. Reddle thinks there is a connection between force and an invisible force that made his father kill his mother back in 1981. He has to uncover and stop the so-called "Damned Thing" before it decimates his whole town by forcing the residents to kill each other and themselves.

Dance of the Dead (2005): Matheson and Garris adapted this episode from a short story of the same name by Matheson’s father. Set in a post-apocalypse society, 17-year-old Peggy lives with her over-protective mother and works in her restaurant. She misses her sister Anna, who died some time ago. When two couples of punks come to the place for some burgers, Peggy becomes attracted to Jak, who invites her to go out on date with him later. Peggy goes out with Jak without telling her mother, and they go across town to a dark place, the Doom Room, where the Master of Ceremonies (Robert Englund) is the ringmaster of a freak show with dead performers. The MC injects blood in the dead, and they dance on a ring for the audience. When Peggy sees her undead sister Anna dancing in the show, the MC discloses the truth about her presence in the circus.

Nightmares and Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King (TNT, 2006 teleplay) In an eight-episode adaptation of King's short stories, Matheson adapted the first episode, Battleground. A hit man (William Hurt) who whacked a toy maker (Bruce Spence) finds himself besieged in his apartment by an army of toy soldiers bent on revenge.

Happy Face Killer (Lifetime Television, 2014, with the story and screenplay created in concert with his father): Serial killer Keith Jesperson (David Arquette) murders at least eight women over a five-year span. He taunts authorities with disturbing letters and scribbled confessions signed with a happy face.

But wait, there’s more! We wouldn’t be doing our job here at the Celluloid Club if we didn’t include Matheson’s notable silver screen credits.

Three O’Clock High (Universal, 1987): High school nerd, Jerry Mitchell (Casey Siemaszko) is assigned to write a piece for the school paper about new boy Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson), who is rumored to be a psychopathic nutcase. When Jerry accidentally touches Buddy, Buddy tells him that they must fight in the parking lot at 3 pm. Jerry will just about do anything to avoid the confrontation.

Loose Cannons (Columbia, 1990): This film, written in partnership with his father, concerns a veteran police detective whose new partner is a younger detective who's a brilliant criminologist. There’s only one problem: he has multiple personality disorder.

It Waits (Anchor Bay, 2005): A lone female park ranger (Cerina Vincent) tries to track down a vicious creature killing various people and terrorizing her at a remote national park.

And all this started with reading a book. All this research has me curious about his father as well, especially that classic William Shatner episode of Twilight Zone. Thanks Ed, for leading me on a new path of discovery!

No comments:

Post a Comment