Hearing yesterday afternoon that writer Richard Matheson passed away struck a profound chord in me. While Mr. Matheson is best known and remembered for his horror works (he penned Hell House and I Am Legend, among others) and writing the iconic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode of The Twilight Zone, I always think of the film Somewhere in Time, based on his romantic time travel tome Bid Time Return, when I think of him. I think it captures what was and is so special about the man. Yes, he could write horror with the best of them (Stephen King cited him as his early influence) but he could also write characters and situations beautifully, as he did with Richard and Elise’s love story.
I first saw the movie in the summer of 1981. At that time, HBO was still a relative novelty (and known as Home Box Office) and only one channel. The film hadn’t done particularly well when released in theaters in September of 1980 and quickly disappeared from big screens until HBO began airing it. Their routine at that time was to show a film around ten in the morning and then repeat it around 6 that night. On this particular day, since school was out, I began watching it during the 10 a.m. airing and was immediately hooked. My mother interrupted me by turning the t.v. off to have me clean my room or something like that. I don’t remember what chore she wanted me to do, I just remember being upset and emotional over the fact that I couldn’t finish the film and see what happened to Richard and Elise. Fortunately, I caught the film in its entirety at 6 p.m. and to use a very worn out cliché, my life was never the same again.
Somewhere in Time was the first movie I ever became obsessed with. I would watch it again and again during the month on HBO. I would buy the VHS tape (and eventually the DVD). I would purchase the soundtrack. I played the hauntingly gorgeous “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” for my last piano recital and would eventually walk down the aisle to it. I read Mr. Matheson’s Bid Time Return multiple times, where the time traveling action took place at the historic Hotel del Coronado, which would be the site of my wedding day breakfast. I would spend hours pondering the idea and thought of time travel and ache over Richard and Elise, these two fictional characters who had become real to me.
In so many ways this story played out in my future and as such, and being a writer myself, I always had a soft spot and a massive level of respect for Mr. Matheson. When I initially saw the film and then read his book, I had no idea what a prolific writer he already was. Not only did he write the aforementioned “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (the famous Twilight Zone episode where airline passenger William Shatner imagined a demon or troll on the wing of his plane) but he also wrote the introductory and closing statements spoken by Rod Serling every episode as well as thirteen other episodes of the series. He wrote a classic episode of Star Trek, titled “The Enemy Within”, considered by many Trekkies to be one of the series’ finest. He won an Edgar Award, World Fantasy Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award and was given credit by Stephen King, Anne Rice and George Romero for inspiring them.
What made Mr. Matheson stand out among the crowd? Opinions may vary but I think it’s because he took very straightforward situations and made the reader a part of them. Read I Am Legend and imagine being the last human being on earth. Then admit that doesn’t give you the creeps. Watch “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and I dare you not to feel the tension and suspense, even more than 40 years after it was written and filmed. Watch the television movie Duel and put yourself in Dennis Weaver’s position, with a tanker truck bent on running him off the road and killing him. And last but certainly not least, read Bid Time Return or watch Somewhere in Time and deny that you feel Richard Collier’s desperation to travel back in time to meet the lovely Elise McKenna.
Perhaps Mr. Matheson’s daughter said it best when she posted on her Facebook page “My beloved father passed away yesterday at home surrounded by the people and things he loved…he was funny, brilliant, loving, generous, kind, creative, and the most wonderful father ever…I miss you and love you forever Pop and I know you are now happy and healthy in a beautiful place full of love and joy you always knew was there…”
Besides his extensive and brilliant literary work, this is how I will remember Richard Matheson. Funny, loving, generous, kind and creative and now in a beautiful place full of love and joy as he always knew.
Rest in peace, Mr. Matheson, and thank you for leaving us with your wonderful works. You are indeed a legend.