The Last of the True Breed: Richard Matheson & Charles Beaumont
The Arbo Files
The pulp magazines reached their apogee during the Great Depression. Millions of readers forked over what little money they could spare in order to be entertained by thrilling stories of spies, detectives, vigilantes, monsters, and much more. When the 1930s gave way to the 1940s, the pulps took a backseat to real world events in Europe and Asia. The cheap pulpwood paper that provided the base material for Weird Tales, Dime Detective Magazine, and many others was requisitioned for the war effort. Less pulpwood meant less pulp magazines. Then, on April 8, 1949, Street & Smith, the premiere pulp magazine publisher, announced the termination of The Shadow, Doc Savage, Detective Story, and Western Story. Some consider this the precise moment when the pulps died.
However, like all truly great things, the spirit of the pulps carried on. A few magazines, like Astounding Science Fiction, continued to enjoy popularity and a wide readership. Some of the early comic books, most notably the horror and crime comics published by EC, contained more than a trace of pulp-style storytelling. Most importantly, television, a then brand-new medium that millions of homes could access multiple times a day, also featured elements taken from the pulps. Nowhere was this truer than with The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), an anthology-style program created by Rod Serling, himself a devotee of the pulps in his youth, that featured speculative stories of a sci-fi and horror bent. Much of the power of The Twilight Zone came from its bevy of exceptional writers, including two who earned their spurs during the waning years of the pulps. The two writers in question, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, not only wrote some of the most memorable Twilight Zone episodes, but they also penned incredible screenplays, short stories, and novels. They were masters of the craft, and their works have been enjoyed by millions for decades. And yet, neither Matheson nor Beaumont is as highly regarded as Howard or Lovecraft, and many neo-pulpsters of our epoch know next to nothing about them. Well, it is time to change that.
Matheson (1926-2013) was born in Allendale, New Jersey to a pair of Norwegian immigrants. After his parents divorced in 1934, young Matheson moved to Brooklyn with his mother. He graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1943, and from there would serve in the U.S. Army during World War II. Matheson saw more than his fair share of combat. He came home, and like millions of other servicemen, he enrolled in college. Matheson graduated from the University of Missouri with a Journalism degree in 1949. He moved to California that same year.
Matheson’s writing career began in 1950, when his short story, “Born of Man and Woman,” was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. A slew of short stories followed that were all published in what was left of the pulps, including “Duel,” later to be immortalized as a made-for-TV movie by Steven Spielberg. Matheson’s work was notable not only for the strangeness of his plots, but also the spareness of his prose. Unlike the pulp writers of the 1930s, Matheson wrote in the journalistic style of modernists like Hemingway (himself a former newspaper man), with a raw, Germanic style foregoing all filigree. A perfect example of this style can be found in his story, “Dress of White Silk” (1951):
Granma locked me in my room and won’t let me out. Because it’s happened she says. I guess I was bad. Only it was the dress. Momma’s dress I mean. She is gone away forever. Granma says your momma is in heaven. I don’t know how. Can she go in heaven if she’s dead?
While living in Los Angeles, Matheson joined a club of writers called The Sorcerers. It was through this group, which was headed by Ray Bradbury, that Matheson first met a young Charles Beaumont in 1951. Before long, the two men would develop a healthy rivalry, as both found success in the 1950s and 1960s as television and movie writers.
Beaumont (1929-1967) was born Charles Leroy Nutt in Chicago. Beaumont’s upbringing was far from normal, as his parents were twenty-two years apart. Beaumont’s mother enjoyed dressing her young son in female clothing, and one time, in an attempt to punish young Beaumont for some infraction, she threatened to kill his dog.
Beaumont dropped out of high school in large part because of incessant bullying. He joined the U.S. Army, and from there worked a variety of odd jobs, including as a radio DJ. Beaumont sold his first story in 1950 to the pulp magazine, Amazing Stories. His first major break came four years later when Playboy published his short story, “Black Country.” Playboy frequently published Beaumont and other speculative writers because of editor Ray Russell, himself a horror writer of exceptional ability. Beaumont found continued success in the late 1950s, publishing two short story collections and two novels. Beaumont is best remembered for his work for the screen, however. He provided the scripts for the classic Twilight Zone episodes “Printer’s Devil” and “The Howling Man,” the latter of which is considered by many as the show’s greatest episode. Beaumont’s chief competition at the Twilight Zone was none other than Matheson, who wrote another contender for greatest episode ever with “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
Matheson and Beaumont continued their friendly competition in Hollywood, where both found plenty of work for the great Roger Corman. Beaumont wrote screenplays for The Premature Burial (1962), The Haunted Palace (1963), and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). (The Haunted Palace is notable as the first cinematic adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft.) All appeared well in Beaumont’s professional life until tragedy struck. At age 34, Beaumont began suffering from a painful and unusual health condition that noticeably aged him at a rapid rate. When Beaumont died at the premature age of 38 in 1967, he was said to have looked like a man in his nineties.
At the time of Beaumont’s death, Matheson was arguably one of the most in-demand writers in the world. Much of his visibility was due to the popularity of his 1954 novella, I am Legend. The post-apocalyptic novel, which explains vampirism in exclusively scientific terms, made its way to the silver screen three different times, with the first, 1964’s The Last Man on Earth, co-written by Matheson under a pseudonym. Despite it being a about a plague of vampires, I am Legend cast a greater influence on zombie literature and zombie film, with the classics of George A. Romero owing quite a lot to Matheson’s work.
While I am Legend made Matheson famous, some of his other novels, including The Shrinking Man, A Stir of Echoes, Hell House, and What Dreams May Come, won film adaptations with varying levels of success. Like Beaumont, Matheson also wrote for the movies, with some of his best work directed by Corman for American International Pictures. Matheson’s credits include the screenplays for House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and The Devil Rides Out (1968). Matheson even returned to television in the early 1970s, penning the scripts for both Carl Kolchak movies, The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973).
The story of Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont is the story of pulp’s continued influence on culture. Both men grew up reading the pulps, and when they first pressed fingers to typewriter keys, they published in the pulps. Their stories are ingrained in our minds thanks to those New Years’ Day Twilight Zone marathons, as well as the many online channels dedicated to appreciating classic Hollywood horror. Matheson and Beaumont were writers of immense talent who took the threads first developed by the pulp writers of the 1920s and 1930s and spun new worlds out of them during the postwar years. Stephen King, himself a writer of outsized influence, has cited both Matheson and Beaumont as influences, with the former being hailed by King as his greatest inspiration. Basically, one cannot understand contemporary horror and science fiction without Matheson and Beaumont. They deserved to be read, re-read, filmed, re-filmed, and re-appreciated.