Picture, if you will, a man hiding out in a military latrine in the middle of the night, reading a novel about a bloodsucking creature. The man’s name is Richard Matheson, he is in the midst of Army basic training during World War II, and he is reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Why did he do it? What kept him awake?
“I don’t know. I was pretty tired, I should have gone to sleep,” he would say many years later. “I enjoyed it at the time, never knowing I was going to write a book about vampires and certainly not that it would be derived from the idea I had when I first saw Bela Lugosi [in the film version].”
Without Richard Matheson, the most popular show on television—AMC’s The Walking Dead, which begins its seventh season Sunday night—would almost certainly not exist. Without him, the entire modern template for science fiction and horror might not exist.
It is very possible you have never heard of Richard Matheson, and yet you almost certainly know his work, because it’s all around us. And perhaps you might debate his overarching “importance”—he is not the kind of writer who will ever win a Nobel Prize—but you cannot debate his impact, because a single 160-page book he wrote in 1954, I Am Legend, is now recognized as one of the most important genre novels of the 21st century.
Without him, the most popular show on television—AMC’s The Walking Dead, which begins its seventh season Sunday night—would almost certainly not exist. Without him, the entire modern template for science fiction and horror might not exist.
In one short novel, Matheson established the basic rules for a story about an apocalypse caused by science, for a story about the lone survivor of said apocalypse, and for a story about otherworldly creatures subsuming the human race. Without him, there might be no trove of literature and humor about the zombie apocalypse. Without him, there might be no Stephen King or Anne Rice (both of whom have cited him as major influences on their work). And without him, even a show like Black Mirror—the Twilight Zone-inspired British dystopian anthology that dropped its third season on Netflix today—might be far less edgy, since Matheson happened to write some of the most influential Twilight Zone episodes, too.
The thing about the greatest science fiction and horror is that it transcends the time when it was written. Dracula is like that, but so is Matheson’s I Am Legend, which has been adapted for the screen multiple times, most recently in a film starring Will Smith. But please, forget for a moment about that film and its sanitized ending, and forget about the otherwise decent versions featuring Charlton Heston and Vincent Price before that. As is the case with most novels, Matheson’s book is far more layered and complex than any of the movies it inspired. Matheson’s book, in fact, is about more than just our fears of strange creatures coming to devour us in the night. It’s about our societal fears, and about changing definitions of manhood, and particularly about the terror and xenophobia plaguing a white male in a rapidly changing world.
“He’s just showing some honest fears I imagine he had about himself and the world at that time,” observes June Pulliam, an instructor of English, women’s and gender studies, and film and media studies at Louisiana State University. “One of the reasons his work is so important is because he was writing about the 21st-century brand of masculinity you see today—fears of big government, discontent with women, fear of them and their bodies.”
In other words, if you wanted to read one book that encapsulates this gruesome and horrifying moment in American political history, your best bet might be I Am Legend.