15 April 2009

Stefan Dziemianowicz reviews Richard Matheson

from Locus Magazine, February 2009

He Is Legend, Christopher Conlon, ed. (Gauntlet Press 978-1-887-368-10-0, $60.00, 525pp, hc) February 2009.

Anthologies that pay tribute to a writer and his contribution to the genre are nothing new in the horror field. They extend back at least as far as Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1969), the start of a cottage industry of anthologies honoring the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and have included since then volumes paying their respects to Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Ray Bradbury, and Ramsey Campbell. If the glut of tribute anthologies impending for the 2009 Poe bicentennial are any indication, the form has a healthy future limited only by some special commemorative event or anniversary.

And, of course, by the renown of the honoree. Of all the writers alive today who are recognized for their horror writing, Richard Matheson, the celebratory subject of He Is Legend, certainly deserves the attention a book of this sort confers. In the more than 50 years he has been publishing he has produced an impressive number of stories, novels, and scripts for film and television that are acknowledged as landmarks of the genre. To the extent that Stephen King has acknowledged Matheson as the single most important influence on his own writing, you could say that contemporary horror publishing is one huge tribute volume to Matheson's impact on the field.

The 16 writers who contributed new stories to this volume all chose a specific work of Matheson's as their inspiration or touchstone. In doing so, they raise questions prompted by problems inherent in any tribute anthology: How do (even, "How dare") you write a variation on a well-respected story and not invite negative comparison? Why would writers who have their own styles and ideas want to work with those of another writer? How do you craft a credible story in the spirit of a truly original writer's work without suggesting that his writing is easily pastiched?

Some, but not all, of the contributions to He Is Legend avoid having to answer these questions by being solidly conceived stories that stand independent of their inspirations. Stephen King & Joe Hill lead off with "Throttle", a collaboration "inspired by," without being heavily indebted to, Matheson's suspense classic "Duel". Whereas Matheson's story pitted a lone car driver against an anonymous semi-hauler in a road-rage extravaganza that assumed the dimensions of the existential struggle of the individual to survive in a hostile universe, King & Hill go for different stakes. Yes, there's a marauding tractor trailer in this one that picks off members of a motorcycle gang on a desolate stretch of desert highway, but the real struggle in this story is a Freudian face-off between father and son riders imagined as only it could be by — well, by father and son writers. Though the story depends a little too heavily on coincidence for its climax, it's notable for a tough and sinewy prose style that comes closer than any other contribution to approximating the streamlined, no-frills prose that makes Matheson's best stories taut and suspenseful masterpieces of minimalist concision.

Of the several writers who use a Matheson novel as a springboard, Nancy Collins, who chose Hell House, pulls off a well-told prequel, "Return to Hell House", that Matheson himself has set up: readers of his novel will remember that Ben Fischer, one of the psychic investigators who endures the nightmares of the haunted Belasco mansion, is the sole survivor of an earlier investigation of the house. Collins imagines Ben's nightmarish ordeal there as a teenage spirit medium in a way that is consistent with Matheson's story, if a bit more sexually explicit. Indeed, a number of stories in this volume were clearly written in less inhibited times than were Matheson's originals, which makes the tension and terror of Matheson achieved in lieu of shock effects all the more impressive.

Joe R. Lansdale, in "Quarry", and William F. Nolan, in "Zachry Revisited", write sequels to Matheson stories (respectively, "Prey" — the memorably televised story of a fetish doll possessed by the relentless spirit of a Zuni warrior — and "Children of Noah" — in which a couple are trapped in a small American town full of cannibals) that work serviceably because they are essentially dedicated rewrites of the originals. By contrast, Matheson's son Richard Christian Matheson and Whitley Streiber contribute solid weird stories — "Venturi" and "Cloud Splitter", respectively — that seem so tenuously connected to their inspirations that even diehard Matheson fans would likely not spot the influence.

Most of the remaining contributions are hobbled by flaws one expects of stories written too slavishly (if respectfully) in homage to another writer's work. Several depend too heavily on the reader's familiarity with their inspiration, or hastily digest the plot of Matheson's original in awkward expository chunks. The worst provide back-story rationales for events in Matheson's originals, as though heedless that the power of those stories lies in their simple unspoken suggestion that events in the Matheson universe conspire naturally, and without any elaborate design, to menace their protagonists. The best that can be said of these efforts is that they prove no one can write a Richard Matheson story like Richard Matheson.

He Is Legend also features an intelligent and informed introduction by Ramsey Campbell, jacket art and abundant illustrations by Harry O. Morris, and the script Matheson wrote with Charles Beaumont for the adaptation of Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife before it was revised for the film released in 1962 as Burn, Witch, Burn. Readers are sure to have their dislikes of the contents, but its safe to say this is the kind of comprehensive package most writers would love to be honored by.

Read more! This is one of two dozen book reviews from the February 2009 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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