Category Archives: Theology

The Weird and Wonderful World of Richard Matheson

The writer Richard Matheson was born to Norwegian immigrant parents in New Jersey on February 20th, 1926. He had his first story published when he was eight years old. After graduating from high school, he joined the army, serving in the US infantry with the 87th Division in France and Germany during World War II. His experiences of warfare formed the basis of his 1960 novel “The Beardless Warriors.”

After the war, he studied journalism at the University of Missouri and moved to California. Summer 1950 saw Matheson make his first real mark as a writer when his short story “Born of Man and Woman” was published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and drew attention. It had the kind of frightening science fiction themes that became Matheson’s trademark and was the first of dozens of short stories he would publish over the next two decades.

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“I Am Legend” from 1954 was his first published novel and is probably his masterpiece (it was voted the best vampire novel of the 20th century by the Horror Writers Association in 2012) A daring deconstruction of the vampire legend, it flips the whole narrative on its head by making the last man alive the destructive predator that vampires fear and despise as he systematically wipes them out by day following a futuristic plague.

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It was adapted for film as “The Last Man on Earth” with Vincent Price in 1964, again as “The Omega Man” in 1971 with Charlton Heston and, more recently, in 2007 with Will Smith.

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The book may have been about vampires but its main theme was loneliness and there are few better books about that subject. As the main character Neville is alone most of the time, it’s a difficult story to write but Matheson does a great job of keeping the reader engaged with his solitary hero in his nightmare world. “I Am Legend” also served as the direct inspiration for classic zombie movie “Night of the Living Dead”, giving birth to a whole new genre of film, almost as if the vampire pandemic gave birth to zombies.

He was also a successful television writer, penning episodes of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and “Star Trek” as well as numerous western shows.

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His 1956 novel “The Shrinking Man” (filmed in 1957 as “The Incredible Shrinking Man”, which Matheson also wrote the screenplay for) has been ripped off by everything from “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” to last year’s “Ant Man.” It had its New York premiere 60 years ago this week in February 1957. In 2009, “The Incredible Shrinking Man” was placed in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, this accolade is only given to films that are “aesthetically, historically or culturally significant.”

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“The Twilight Zone” seemed made for Matheson and another famous story of his, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, was filmed for the show among others. It concerned a nervous flyer (played by William Shatner in the 1963 TV show and John Lithgow in the Twilight Zone movie twenty years later) who is convinced a demon is smashing up the wing of the passenger plane he is on during a vicious thunderstorm. No one believes him, even when he saves the lives of everyone on board by trying to kill the creature and forcing it to flee.

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The Simpsons did a parody of this story in one of their Halloween specials where Bart Simpson sees a demon dismantling the wheels of the school bus he’s on. Demonstrating how his stories are so ingrained now in popular culture.

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In 1968, he adapted Dennis Wheatley’s novel “The Devil Rides Out” for Britain’s Hammer Horror films. It is one of the best British horror movies ever made and features Christopher Lee in one of his finest roles as a man battling the forces of darkness.

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His nerve-shredding TV movie script for “Duel” became Steven Spielberg’s first film in 1971.

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Other Matheson novels made into films include “Bid Time Return” which became “Somewhere in Time” starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour (arguably a big influence on “Back To The Future” and “The Terminator”), “What Dreams May Come” with Robin Williams, “Stir of Echoes”, a supernatural horror film starring Kevin Bacon and “Real Steel”, a sci-fi action movie about fighting robots with Hugh Jackman.

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He once said: “I wrote about real people and real circumstances and real neighbourhoods. There was no crypt or castles or H.P. Lovecraft-type environments. They were just about normal people who had something bizarre happening to them in the neighbourhood. I could never write about strange kingdoms. I could never do Harry Potter or anything like that.”

Assessing his career, he said: “I think ‘What Dreams May Come’ is the most important (read effective) book I’ve written. It has caused a number of readers to lose their fear of death, the finest tribute any writer could receive. … Somewhere In Time is my favourite novel.”

His daughter and two sons also became writers.

Richard Matheson died in June 2013. He left behind a significant body of work including dozens of novels, short stories, TV show scripts, TV movies and movies both adapted by him from his own work and adapted by others. Writer Ray Bradbury called him “one of the most important writers of the 20th century.” While Stephen King claimed Matheson was the writer who had influenced him the most. Another writer called Harlan Ellison praised his “supernova lifetime of writing mentioned in the same breath with Poe and Borges.” That is about as good as it gets.

I’ll leave the final word to Mr Matheson: “I hope people are reading my work in the future. I hope I have done more than frightened a couple of generations. I hope I’ve inspired a few people one way or another.” You certainly have, sir, you certainly have.

(“The Vorbing”, my vampire novel inspired by Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” is available here)
© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

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Capital Punishment: The Ghosts of Death Sentences Passed

The death penalty question has been dragged kicking and screaming into the headlines again this week after the execution of a man in Alabama who appeared to be still conscious during his execution. It was reported that he “coughed” “heaved” and clenched his fists as the authorities began administering lethal injections to end his life. He had been convicted of the murder of a man during a robbery in 1994. The jury gave him a life sentence which was overruled by the judge who imposed the death penalty as judges in Alabama are allowed to do. The execution has prompted 101 lawyers and legal professors in Alabama to call for the removal of 34 inmates from death row who were put there by a judge overruling a jury’s verdict.

So let us take a look at the history of the death penalty.

“Since 1976, 1,348 people have been executed in the US, but in that time 136 people have been exonerated from death row on the grounds that they categorically could not have committed the crime for which they were sentenced to death. In other words, for every ten people on death row who are executed, at least one person on death row is innocent.” – Dr Bharat Malkani, Birmingham Law School

There is no way back from an execution. Like any of man’s constructs, the death penalty is fallible. Innocent people have been executed throughout history. No amount of compensation can replace a human life.

The Guildford Four were three innocent Irishmen and an Englishwoman found guilty of carrying out the IRA pub bombings in Guildford in England in 1974. As he sentenced them, the judge, Mr Justice Donaldson, lamented the fact that he was unable to impose a death sentence on them as capital punishment had been abolished in England in 1965. He said he would have no hesitation in having them executed. (The judge even asked the home secretary why they weren’t charged with treason as that was the only way he could have them put to death) Imagine how those innocent people felt hearing those chilling words.  The Guildford Four were exonerated and released from prison in 1989. Their story was told in the movie In The Name of the Father starring Daniel Day Lewis.

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Even though the rate of capital and non-capital murder offences increased after the abolition of the death penalty in England, Scotland and Wales in 1965, it’s arguable that those figures would have risen anyway given the more permissive attitudes of the late 1960s and the proliferation of gun use in British criminal circles starting with the headline-grabbing Kray and Richardson gangs.

New forensic methods and tools are becoming available all the time now, things unavailable in the past when death sentences were decided and handed down. Cold cases are being solved, convictions quashed and people are being set free. What future developments will arrive to challenge the evidential certainties of today?

The death sentence happens all over the world with China heading up Amnesty International’s league chart for having the most executions. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United States take up the next four positions.

The death penalty in Western countries has been around for centuries and would appear to have moral backing. The Bible calls for “an eye for an eye” or the law of retaliation. Leviticus 24:20 says: “Fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him.” As Gandhi succinctly put it, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” BBC Learning interpreted and expanded on this quote: “This famous quote refers to an Old Testament reference regarding the legal penalties for violence. Gandhi rejected violence as a means to change, and only engaged in peaceful ways of protest. A version of this quote was in fact also used by Dr Martin Luther King Jr during the struggle for civil rights and equality in the USA. Both men were proponents of the power of the people and their peaceful methods carried great weight and helped bring about social change.”

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If you wanted to take a pro-Christian view of the death penalty, you could argue that Jesus was an innocent man put to death for nothing. Even Pontius Pilate stated that he could see no wrongdoing on the part of Christ. Nevertheless, the execution went ahead to placate the baying mob, the local elders and to maintain peace in the region. So it is not simply a case of innocence or guilt, the death penalty, as almost happened in the cases of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, can be abused as a political tool with sacrificial scapegoats slaughtered because someone wants blood.

Prejudice plays a part in executions too. If a person belongs to a socially-reviled group, race or social class, there probably won’t be a big effort to save them either.

The families of some victims are against the death penalty, some for humanitarian reasons, some because they think execution is a quick, easy escape from what the offender has done to their loved ones. They want them to spend the rest of their lives rotting in prison and contemplating their actions. The execution of the focus of their rage may not bring the closure they hoped for. It can prove anti-climactic when people get what they think they want.

It is very expensive to keep people in prison for decades. And, in countries with huge prison populations like the United States and China, there is chronic overcrowding. So, to use horrific Holocaust economics, the death penalty is cost effective and recycles occupied space. No politician will publicly admit this but these are the decisions being taken in countries with the capital punishment on their statute books.

Whatever heinous act someone has committed, the “life” they are allowed on death row is non-existent. In the United States, death row prisoners can wait many years before their execution, with no hope for the future. They appeal and appeal and appeal and go back and forth to courtrooms endlessly. Depression is common among death row inmates but they are placed on suicide watch to prolong their psychological torture. When all legal options have been exhausted, a date of execution is set. There have even been stories of men sitting in the death chamber getting last-minute reprieves and being taken back to their cells on death row (essentially a mock execution). That is mental cruelty of the highest order. Even worse are the stories of executions going wrong with inmates suffering agonising injuries and/or a slow death. (Saddam Hussein’s half-brother was accidentally decapitated during a botched hanging in Iraq in 2007.)  A state that retains such a barbaric system loses something of itself that it can never recover.

Yes, there are some people who are beyond rehabilitation and will always be a threat to society. The solution is not to put them down like animals. We have surely evolved beyond the sadistic public executions of the Middle Ages.

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© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Remembering Father Ted

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Irish actor Frank Kelly, who played Father Jack in the classic sitcom Father Ted, died today on the 18th anniversary of the death of Father Ted himself, Dermot Morgan. The show ran from 1995 until 1998, Dermot Morgan had only finished shooting the last episode of Ted days before his death. I didn’t watch the show during its initial run as I thought it was some British comedy making fun of Ireland. When I found out that it was written by two Irish writers, I tuned in to the repeats and was amazed at how good it was.

Father Ted really nailed the insanity and hypocrisy of Irish life well. I have this theory that Ted is the only sane person in the show with this maelstrom of insanity swirling around him. He really represents the ordinary man. The two-faced, foul-mouthed married couple who fight like cat and dog on the show but become angels when any priest is around was very familiar to anyone growing up in Catholic Ireland. As was Mrs Doyle, Father Ted’s housekeeper, a pastiche of the overbearing Irish Mammy, forcing cups of tea down people’s throats as if her life depended on it (which in Famine times it did, where this particular Irish female trait originates).

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Father Ted is kind of like Ireland’s Sergeant Bilko; beautifully written and played, laugh-out-loud funny with each episode a little gem that stands up to repeat viewing. David McSavage’s The Savage Eye is kind of like Ireland’s Monty Python; mercilessly surreal satire (you could argue that Ted inspired Savage Eye as they both skewer Irish life, McSavage’s bigoted Bull character is a similar Gaelic grotesque to Father Jack even down to the bad teeth. Ted is by fat the gentler and more subtle of the two, but The Savage Eye went further and straight for the jugular).

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David McSavage as “The Bull”

With the passing of Frank Kelly, Father Ted seems to take on an even more mythic status. It was on TV in the 1990s, the decade when Ireland finally came of age. We had an Irish James Bond in Pierce Brosnan. We couldn’t stop winning the Eurovision Song Contest (we haven’t won it again since 1996). The Irish soccer team qualified for two World Cups for the first time. We had classic Irish movies like The Commitments, The Field and The Snapper. Irish music acts like U2, Sinead O’Connor, The Corrs, Westlife and Boyzone ruled the charts. It was a bit of a golden age all round.

Right now is an uncertain time for Ireland; we’re emerging from the biggest economic crash the country has ever seen. On Friday, we had a general election where all our sacred cows got slaughtered, a “political earthquake” as one politician put it. As no one knows where we’re headed, we can only look back into the past. Father Ted sits proudly there. It’s a sad day to lose Frank Kelly and another member of that great Ted cast. Father Ted is also a bit like Ireland’s version of Friends, in that it’s always on repeat on loop on various channels. It never seems to go away or lose its freshness or appeal. It could have been made yesterday. That’s the definition of great comedy. RIP Mr Kelly.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

5-Star Vampires

The latest 5-star review of my novel  # hails it “a classic in the vampire genre” with “incredible imagination.” Get it here and see for yourself; getBook.at/TheVorbingAmazon

Does Satan Reside at The Hotel California?

Glenn Frey of The Eagles sadly died yesterday. He co-wrote the lyrics of their most famous song “Hotel California” with drummer Don Henley (music by Don Felder). Like Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s a classic 70s song with striking imagery, the meaning of which is tantalisingly vague (“I think we achieved perfect ambiguity,” Frey told NBC in 1998. Like Freddie Mercury, he took the real meaning of his most famous song, if there was one, to the grave with him). Some have seen Satanic references in the song which Don Henley has dismissed as “ludicrous.”

It all comes down to what I call “Intention Versus Perception”: what a writer intends and really means and what the reader sees, takes from it and/or twists to fit their own agenda. But, almost as if the Devil himself was tempting us to do so, let’s tease out those Satanic “Hotel California” references, real or imagined, for fun.

The cover of the album “Hotel California” allegedly has an image of well-known Hollywood Satanist Anton LaVey glaring down from a balcony.

LaVey Album Cover

LaVey was head of the Church of Satan (located, ahem ahem, in a hotel on California Street, no less!). So we’re already in eerie territory before a song has even been played on the record. (It was rumoured that LaVey placed a curse that resulted in the car crash that killed actress Jayne Mansfield. “Hotel California” begins with a car driving. Were Henley and Frey thinking of the Mansfield crash, perhaps? LaVey’s alleged appearance on the cover seems to point in that direction.)

The first line of the song “Hotel California” is: “On a dark desert highway…” The Devil is also known as the Prince of Darkness and he tempted Jesus in the Judean Desert when he was fasting for 40 days and 40 nights.

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“There she stood in the doorway;
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself,
“This could be Heaven or this could be Hell”” (Self-explanatory)

“So I called up the Captain…” In the 1973 film, The Exorcist, teenager Regan McNeil communicates through a Ouija board with someone she calls Captain Howdy. It is later revealed to be the demon Pazuzu.

“Please bring me my wine…” Jesus turned water into wine and gave wine to his disciples at the Last Supper, saying: “This is my blood, the blood of the new everlasting covenant, it will be shed for you and for all men, so that sins may be forgiven, do this in memory of me.” Now that’s a possible Christ reference, but the next line brings us back to Old Diablo again.

“We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969…” A rejection of Christ’s blood? What happened in 1969? The big story of that year was the Moon Landing (A crescent moon is a symbol of the aging goddess (crone) in witchcraft)

“And in the master’s chambers, they gather for the feast…” A witches’ Sabbath?

“They stab it with their steely knives but they just can’t kill the beast…” The Eagles claim this was a playful reference to Steely Dan who they were big fans of and also because Dan had referenced The Eagles in a song called “Everything You Did.” It could also be a reference, unconscious or otherwise, to the movie The Omen that opened a year before “Hotel California” in 1976. In it, Damien, the Antichrist, can only be killed by one of the Seven Sacred Daggers of Tel Megiddo. Damien also has three sixes on his scalp, “the number of The Beast.”

“You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave…” Sounds like souls trapped in Hell.

There the song ends and the interpretations began. Is any of it true? We’ll probably never know, but I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next man.

Years later, when Irving Azoff, the manager of The Eagles, received an award, Don Henley took to the presentation stage and said: “He may be Satan, but he’s OUR Satan.”

The Eagles split up in 1980 and vowed they would only reunite when “Hell freezes over.” Sure enough, they did reunite 14 years later in 1994 with the album “Hell Freezes Over.” Hmm…

No doubt Glenn Frey went straight to Heaven yesterday. May he rest in peace.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

The Vorbing Cometh: October 29th, 2015

Ladies and gentlemen, at long, long last (19 years), my book The Vorbing is finally available for pre-order on Amazon.

US: 

UK: 

Exciting times ahead in the near future. Join me.