Whether you realize it or not, you have probably either witnessed or been influenced by a Richard Matheson novel/story. If you’ve watched The Twilight Zone, or seen the movies I Am Legend, The Omega Man, The Incredible Shrinking Man, What Dreams May Come, Stir of Echoes, Bid Time Return, Hell House, or Duel, to name just a smattering, then his work has trickled down to you.
I would liken Matheson to Ray Bradbury: he’s a prolific writer (often of short stories) who doesn’t have the sex appeal of some mainstream authors, but who has nonetheless had a tremendous impact upon the writers that came after him. No less a literary giant (whether justly so or not) than Stephen King has listed Matheson as a strong influence and inspiration.
It’s possible you’ve read or plan to read I Am Legend after seeing the cinematic adaption starring Will Smith. Smith’s movie was good enough for what it was, but it’s difficult to capture Matheson on celluloid and do him justice. He’s a master of being both detailed (occasionally florid) and yet breathtakingly succinct, which is the particular province of good short fiction writers. As well, he handles moral matters with far more complexity and subtlety than others: look at how much the Will Smith butchered the entire point of the story in order to make a more Hollywood sort of point. The book is The Stranger; the film is a more maudlin sort of pabulum.
I Am Legend (from here on, I refer to the book) is the story of Robert Neville, the only apparent survival of an epidemic that killed much of humanity and turned the rest into creatures which resemble, for all intents and purposes, the vampires of myth. Matheson establishes his daily routine: fortify his house, repair damage from vampire attacks during the night, and go on the hunt, killing any sleeping vampires he can find. There’s an interesting sort of dichotomy that’s established: there are “living” vampires, which are infected humans who have taken on vampiric traits, and then there are the “dead” vampires, which are dead humans whose bodies have been reanimated.
There are two main threads to the story. The first is personal, tracking Neville’s continued existential anguish at being the last person alive, forced to kill in order to remain alive, and contemplating the meaning of it all. Most of the time is spent on this thread, as Matheson establishes his backstory and the context for the plague that made the vampires. The second thread is the machinations of the plot: Neville emerges himself in chemistry, cellular biology, &c., eventually discovering that the vampirism is a bacterial infection which may possibly have a cure.
Then, of course, comes the twist and the surprise ending, neither of which I’ll divulge except to say that even if you’ve seen the movie, it’s entirely different. And better, as far as I’m concerned.
Matheson’s œuvre as a short fiction writer is to pack the most possibly plot and substance into a small package. I Am Legend is a merely 160 pages, but it feels as though it has the story of a much larger work. This, I think, is a testament to Matheson’s talent as a writer. Not only is I Am Legend a building block of any scifi/fantasy/horror list, but it’s still thrilling even 50 years later.