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February 26, 2009 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Some writers are lucky enough to see their names become household terms. Authors such as Michael Crichton and Orson Scott Card only need be mentioned for the casual reader to recognize them. Other writers, though, can go their whole careers as virtual unknowns. Such is the case for MU alum Richard Matheson, whose novel turned film, I Am Legend, was released in December 2007 and made more than $500 million worldwide at the box office. Working to bring the author to light, Columbia local Paul Stuve and two other editors have compiled a collection of biographical works and tributes into a book, The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson, which came out Jan. 27.
Although Matheson’s name is relatively unknown, his many works are not. Along with I Am Legend (1954), he is the author of two other well-known titles, Stir of Echoes (1958) and What Dreams May Come (1978). His famed short story, “Duel,” was adapted into one of Steven Spielberg’s first films by the same name and released in 1971. Matheson also worked closely with Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone and wrote some of the more famous episodes, including the William Shatner, gremlin-on-the-wing favorite, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Stephen King has even cited him as a direct influence. If all of that weren’t enough, he wrote songs, too. A couple of them were eventually recorded by Perry Como.
The Twilight and Other Zones ($19.95, Citadel Press) addresses all this through pieces written by authors, friends and family. Offering surprises for Matheson experts and newcomers alike, the book contains personal anecdotes about the writer from those close to him. Some of the best chapters include segments from interviews with the author himself, whose dry wit is more entertaining at times than the prose surrounding it. Most impressive, though, is the almost 150-page, in-depth index of Matheson’s works at the book’s end. It lists and details everything Matheson has written, from first-edition prints of novels to his plays and musicals produced as an MU journalism undergraduate in ’47 and ’48.
“No one knows that he’s responsible for all that,” says Stuve, who helped edit The Twilight and Other Zones while working as a hospital psychologist. “I got involved in this because I started collecting Matheson.”
How long has Stuve been collecting? “Let’s just say since I was a teenager,” he says. His diligence paid off. When Stuve met as a collector with Matthew Bradley and Stanley Waiter, the book’s original editors, he was quickly swept into their project. Working on the book for the past two years, he primarily assisted with the in-depth bibliography at the book’s end. He also wrote a chapter that’s intriguing on the local level because it takes a look at Matheson’s letters to William Peden, a creative writing professor who began teaching at MU about the same time Matheson enrolled.
“That was blind luck,” Stuve says, smiling. He learned about the letters when looking through the MU Rare Book Collection and ended up with access to nearly 30 years of correspondence. Some of the letters have been scanned and are reprinted directly in the book; they reveal personal insights from Matheson on the process of writing and the frustrations of working within the Hollywood system. It’s a neat bit of individual history.
“Definitely people who are familiar with Matheson would find the book interesting, and anyone who’s interested in science fiction/fantasy,” Stuve says.
If the book suffers from anything, it’s the phenomenon of too much sugar overwhelming the fruit. Many of the pieces in the book are tributes to the author’s influence, including a piece by Dean Koontz, who writes, “Writers … who put their words down for no reason but love of the subject, have to be granted every license except the license to kill.” This sort of leeway is granted for one puff piece, but pile on too many, and readers’ eyes glaze over waiting for some substance.
The book is at its best when Matheson speaks for himself through interviews and letters (“Like the bee that can’t possibly fly with such small wings, Hollywood couldn’t possibly exist and be so ridiculous.”) or when writers share stories about Matheson the man rather than mere praise for Matheson’s contributions to the literary world. Overall, the book is a good read for those curious about how the writer came up with his imaginative plots and settings, and many will be surprised his name has remained hidden for so long.