The Loneliness of Sci-Fi by Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson was the author of dozens of fantasy and science fiction novels, many of which were adapted for film and television. His son Chris Matheson, co-creator of the Bill and Ted films, explores his complicated relationship with his father in the new book Conversations With the Father.

“If you’re interested in my father, if Richard Matheson is a character that interests you, if his stories have been important to you in some way, then I think I have a very specific point of view on this man,” says Chris in Episode 520 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I was his kid and I was very, very close to him.”

In novels like I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man and A Stir of Echoes, Richard Matheson combined wild sci-fi concepts with recognizable everyday characters. It was an approach that would have a profound influence on later authors, such as Stephen King. “[Matheson] took a lot of the goth/cobwebby/dark mansion/candlelight quality out of horror, bringing out the reality and this sense of truthfulness,” says Chris. “I Am Legend really stands out because of the sense of realism it gets, the feeling of ‘What would it be like to be the last person alive in a world full of vampires?'”

The great theme of Richard Matheson was loneliness. Time and again he writes about isolated men struggling to survive against insurmountable odds. In Conversations With the Father, Chris recalls his father’s difficulty connecting with other people. “He and my mother had a lot of friends, they had a lot of social contacts, but I don’t know if he had a good friend,” Chris says. “I’m not sure there was anyone he could really open up to. I’m not sure he’s ever had another man to whom he could reveal himself and talk openly about his feelings.”

Chris believes his father used two strategies to deal with his feelings of loneliness. One was to seek solace in the company of animals — his love for dogs is powerfully expressed in novels like I Am Legend and What Dreams May Come — and the other was to throw himself into his work. “This is a guy who went into his little office — which was essentially a converted barn — and he’d be alone in his office for eight hours,” Chris says. “And he loved it—or needed it. He thrived on it.”

Listen to the full interview with Chris Matheson on Episode 520 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Chris Matheson on adaptation:

[My dad] was a very frugal and efficient narrator. He described what he thought was a good piece, always as “it’s as clean as a dog’s tooth.” That’s how he used to say it. And that’s how his stuff is sometimes, it’s just bang-bang-bang-bang. And that can make for a pretty good movie, because with a movie you just don’t have that long. You have a few hours. I Am Legend is not a very long book. It’s 160 pages. … And so his already meager and frugal stories lend themselves perfectly to film. It’s amazing how many movies have been made of his stories.

Chris Matheson on Thought and Destiny by Harold Percival:

[My dad] loved and embraced it, and it became his bible, in fact so much so that he eventually wrote a book called The Path, which is his popularization of Harold Percival’s book. To the extent that if you google “Harold Percival,” if you look at his Wikipedia article, it will basically say that his biggest supporter in the world is Richard Matheson, which I believe is true. And the book is ridiculous. The book is laughable. The book is gassy and pompous and just fraudulent and dumb as hell. I couldn’t believe it when I read it. It was like, “Daddy, how can you believe this? How can this be?” My father was an intelligent man, fear trumps all, I think.

Chris Matheson on What Dreams May Come:

I knew he was writing this book where [our family] would all be characters… I remember saying to him, “Dad, I don’t understand. You die and go to heaven, and then mother kills herself and goes to hell. That’s a weird story to tell.” And he says, “Well, what else could it be?” And I thought, “Well, I don’t know. You could go to hell, right?” And he says, “Oh, that makes no sense.” But I thought that was weird, and it pissed my mom a little bit. She didn’t really like it. It was weird for her because there is a long love letter to her at the end. But she kills herself because she can’t live without him and goes to hell, and he comes from heaven and saves her. It’s a bit strange.

Chris Matheson on Bill and Ted’s excellent adventure:

I believe we did [the police station scene] pretty much on set or the day before. This is written in the moment. I think what we wrote didn’t work, so I remember Ed Solomon, my partner, throwing this away [time travel] idea. And my first reaction was, “Wow, that’s really complicated. Is that going to work?” It only took me a minute to get my head around it. Then it was like, “Oh yeah. Well, that’s really funny.” And then we wrote it very, very quickly, and the jokes seemed very fresh.When you enter a new territory, you might get funny jokes.

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