Master of Horror: On Writing with Richard Matheson

Horror Legend Richard Matheson


I read a lot; my sister read a lot. I was taken to the library when I was very young, and I became an omnivorous reader. My sister, again, was a great moviegoer who took us to the movies a lot, living in Flatbush, where there were, like, ten theaters within walking distance. I went to the movies constantly. I always went to the Saturday matinees, and you’d go whenever else you could. If you were staying home, sick from school, and you could get away with it, you’d sneak over to the movies.

I read a lot of fantasy when I was a kid. Science fiction, I never read until I sold a story which they told me was science fiction.

I always liked movies. Whether, in my teen years, I ever gave credence to the idea that I could actually write them, I don’t know. But I corresponded with people like [the producer] Val Lewton when I was a teenager. I remember writing to him and telling him that I had figured out two of his secrets for scaring people: one was that you lead the viewer’s eye to one side of the screen and then have something jump out from the other side; the other was an extended period of silence, suddenly broken by anything—like a horse nickering in the stable—that would make you jump out of your skin. He wrote back to me that he and his editors, Robert Wise and Mark Robson, were delighted I had been able to figure this out.


When I went to college and took writing courses, they would always talk about the distinctions between the pulp writer and the slick writer and the art writer. I came to realize that was ridiculous. There are only interesting stories and dull stories, no matter where they’re printed.

I never wrote like a pulp writer. Once in a while, you get inspired, like I did when I wrote a story called “Madhouse”—ten thousand words—and I rattled it all off in one sitting. But that’s a rarity. It’s much better to be a professional and a craftsman, and to rework things.

To this day, I’ve never written to the market. I’ve always written just what interested me and pleased me. As the perfect proof of that, just at the time when the horror novel was really starting to go crazy, I gave it up after I wrote Hell House. I had lost interest in it. I still have no interest in it. Now, it’s like an industry, for Chrisakes.


Then, in 1954, we went back east because we were running out of money—my wife and I and our daughter and son—and I went to work for my brother again. He had his own business by then.

That was when I wrote The Shrinking Man. My agent, Al Manuel, sold it to Universal. They just wanted to buy the book. I recognized that this was my chance—now or never—to write the screenplay. They probably figured, “Let him have his ten weeks; then, we’ll have it rewritten  . . . ” At the time, I was still living on Long Island.

I took to it like a duck to water. I’ve always written visually when I write novels or short stories. I can see it as I write it; therefore, the reader can see it, and therefore, my prose transposes pretty easily to films. If you write that way, to me, it’s just a question of learning the technique of film writing, which isn’t that complicated. It will take you about maybe a week to learn it. I over-learned it. I wrote intricate camera descriptions, which was perhaps ridiculous. But I’ve always written detailed shooting scripts. To a lot of writers, it’s a mistake. They always say, “Why bother? The director will change it.” I do it anyway. It works out—sometimes.

In Duel, Spielberg shot my script. He embellished it, obviously, and made it marvelously interesting, but it was my script, my through-line, and many of my shots.


I didn’t really appreciate it for a long time. Actually, it wasn’t until my son Richard became a professional writer that he pointed out how unusual it was for its time. The ending alone was unusual for its time.

In writing the script, I wanted to follow the structure of the book—which was sort of like Last Year at Marienbad [1962]—where you plunge right into the story and then have flashbacks. I had actually written the book manuscript the other way around, starting from when the main character was big. But by the time he got to be small, maybe one hundred pages had gone by, and I thought, “Geez, this is real boring.” So I restructured it. I did the same thing with I Am Legend. I restructured that book too, so that you were just plunged into the story, and the flashbacks brought you up to date.

In The Shrinking Man, the first moment is the spider chasing him through the cellar, instead of telling the whole continuity of how it happened; then, I could pick specific points along the way to fill in the story…  They [Universal] didn’t do it that way. It’s a straight continuity.


They always say you should be able to tell any good story in two or three lines—or even one sentence. You couldn’t categorize my work that way completely. And you can’t say, “This is a story about Lawrence of Arabia  . . . ”; that’s such an expansive character. But give me virtually any film or story, and I can probably reduce it to two or three lines. And I hope my films fit into that category.

When I was writing short stories, some of my ideas would come from other books because I read omnivorously. Someone would mention something in a short story, totally overlooking what they had said, and I would pounce on it like a tiger. For example, there’s a section in Wild Talents, one of Charles Fort’s books, [New York: Garland, 1975], where, in several paragraphs, he describes, literally, a sequence that I made a whole short story out of. I couldn’t believe when I wrote it that nobody ever latched on to the connection. He said in future times, psychic girls would fight wars; they will visualize terrible things happening to soldiers. And I got a great story out of that.

Most of my ideas have come from films. When I lived in Brooklyn, I went to see a Dracula film and the idea came to me: If one vampire was scary, what if the whole world was full of vampires? That became I Am Legend.

Another time, I went to see a comedy with Ray Milland and Aldo Ray [Let’s Do It Again, 1953]; and Ray Milland was leaving an apartment and he put on Aldo Ray’s hat and it came down way over his ears. At that second, I thought, “What if a guy put his own hat on and that happened?” That’s where I got the idea for Shrinking Man.

And most of the ideas come from bad movies. Because if they’re good movies, you’re absorbed and not distracted. If it’s a bad movie, if you’re a movie buff, you stay and watch anyway. But as you’re sitting there, you drift off. Something will happen [on the screen]  . . . and it will spin off [in your mind] into something else.

When you’re reading a story, I think, if the story is really boring you, you will stop reading it. You have to concentrate or stop. In a movie, you don’t have to concentrate. You can just sit there. Things will come into your eyes but not really into your brain. And you drift off in a different direction  . . .


Through the years, I have been able to get more and more into character, but I never went into stories based on characters. I went into stories based on a story idea. Then I put characters in the story that I hoped would be believable and realistic in real life and maybe move you. But I’m a storyteller. The story is the thing. They can put that on my tombstone: Storyteller.

From Wikipedia:

Richard Burton Matheson (born February 20, 1926) is an American author and screenwriter, primarily in the fantasy, horror, and science fiction genres. He is perhaps best known as the author of The Shrinking Man, Hell House, What Dreams May Come, Bid Time Return (filmed as Somewhere in Time), A Stir of Echoes, and I Am Legend, all of which have been adapted as major motion pictures, the last at least three times. Matheson also wrote several The Twilight Zone television show episodes for Rod Serling, such as “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet“, “Steel“, and others. He later adapted his 1971 short story “Duel” into a screenplay which was directed by a young Steven Spielberg, for the television movie of the same name.

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