Richard Matheson died yesterday. He was an author far too few people recognize. Many of my age are surprised to learn the same person wrote I Am Legend and What Dreams May Come. He wrote Hell House, one of the most influential ghost stories ever told, and my personal favorite. When you gather up his pseudo-scientific vampires, his new-age Heaven, his house of skeptics chasing ghosts, and add in The Shrinking Man inspiring the film craze of tiny people in peril (it beat Fantastic Voyage by nine years), you begin to realize he kickstarted a great deal of the Science Fiction of the last sixty years.
I Am Legend alone was adapted by Vincent Price (as "The Last Man on Earth"), Charlton Heston (as "The Omega Man") and Will Smith (finally, as "I Am Legend"). If Smith's I Am Legend flick seemed too much like zombie fiction for you, you'll come to realize Matheson not only pushed the modern more secular vampire on us, but a lot of what George Romero pulled out to invent the modern zombie. George Romero says so.
Did you see Real Steel? That was an adaptation of his short story, simply titled "Steel." It had also been adapted for an episode of The Twilight Zone, a show he wrote for frequently. He was often writing the intros Rod Serling's voice made famous. And he's the guy who wrote the gremlin on the wing of a plane that only William Shatner could see.
Do you like old school Star Trek? He wrote for it from the first season, starting with "The Enemy Within." He's the guy who split Kirk into two Good and Evil captains.
Stephen Spielberg's first movie was Duel, an adaptation of Matheson's short story of the same name. Matheson wrote the screenplay for him.
Matheson was a significant influence on Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and Joe Hill. In fact if you go read any random Matheson story, you'll find his voice eerily similar to those three writers. That's because they learned it from him. Even Chris Carter, the mastermind of The X-Files, credits Matheson for inspiring his series.
For my generation, Matheson seems to be the legend nobody's heard of. I've only read his work in recent years, though he's rapidly become one of my most respected authors. That short, "Duel"? I was reading it for the third time on an Amtrak train, and ten pages in, unconsciously turned around to make sure I wasn't being tailed by a truck. On a train.
An author can only dream of influencing fiction as much as Matheson can. I don't believe it's possible to plan to do it; you might be able to game the market for a sales hit, but not to capture hearts and minds with idea after idea. Richard Matheson was a god of ideas.