Fantasy/sci-fi/horror writer Richard Matheson passed away earlier this year, and I had been meaning to write about that when I saw that actress Karen Black had recently died as well. And if you’re wondering what those two have in common, bear with me with and I’ll explain.
Hardcore speculative fiction fans know all about Matheson, and casual fans of the sci-fi and horror genres are probably familiar with his work. The gremlin on the wing of the airplane in that Twilight Zone episode? His doing. The recent Will Smith apocalypse movie I Am Legend? Adapted from his novel of the same name (and also done as a movie twice before). Stephen King (you may have heard of him) and George Romero (the director who popularized zombies with the Living Dead movies) have cited him as a major influence.
Shatner gonna Shatner….
Matheson’s writings were also adapted for one of Steven Spielberg’s early works (Duel), the classic Incredible Shrinking Man (which has a scene that arachnophobes REALLY ought to skip), and for a largely-forgotten but well-done Christopher Reeve sci-fi/romance, Somewhere in Time.
None of which has anything to do with the late Karen Black, who was in a string of movies in the late ’60’s and 70’s, including Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and The Great Gatsby. I first learned of Matheson and Black because of a made-for-TV horror anthology they were involved in called Trilogy of Terror, which introduced the world to this charming fellow:
“That thing,” as we swiftly learn, is a fetish doll holding the homicidal spirit of a Zuni hunter called “He Who Kills,” and the magical gold chain around the doll is all that keeps the spirit dormant. The chain comes off, of course, and then…well, this happens:
The payoff starts at 5:42. Wait for it. Waiiiiit for it….
I didn’t see the original broadcast, back in 1975, but I sure heard about it from my friends who had. Needless to say, my imagination went into overdrive about the story of the evil doll that comes to life and chases the pretty lady in the apartment. It wasn’t until many years later, as a teenager, that I saw the whole piece. And if you can believe this, it was scarier than I had imagined.
Trilogy of Terror (and movies like it) helped draw me in early towards the horror genre, where I found Stephen King (I discuss that here)…who led me back to Matheson, his books this time. As good as the TV and film adaptations are, his novels and short stories (“Born of Man and Woman” is particularly chilling) are even better. Do yourself a favor and check some out of the library.