Sonntag, 7. April 2013

I am Legend by Richard Matheson. The birth of a genre

I Am Legend

By Richard Matheson

Corgi Books 1971

(Originally published in 1954.)

                                                                  My 1971 copy.

     I’ve had Richard Matheson on the brain lately since writing a post several weeks ago celebrating his 87 birthday. Now because of this bout of “Matheson-Fever” I’ve re-read quite a bit of his work these past 5 weeks. I don’t know whether it was a good idea or not, but I ended up choosing his 1954 Vampire apocalypse novel “I am Legend” for my bedtime reading. As it turned, I spent more time reflecting on the book than I did reading it.  

     My first exposure to this story must have been around 1971 or so. I do know that 71 was when my parents first allowed me to stay up on Friday nights to watch “Chiller Theater” on channel 10 out of Columbus. Chiller Theater on WBNS specialized in lots of old Black and White horror films at that time. One of the first films I remember getting to stay up and watch was the 1964 film “The Last Man onEarth” starring Vincent Price. Even though I later learned that Mr. Matheson was unhappy with the production and ended up having his name removed from the script credits, this is the most faithful film adaptation so far and is also one of the most frightening films that I’ve ever seen. I know that it upset the hell out of my back then and this of course meant that I was in a ten year olds horror heaven!  I didn’t get a hold of the novel until a few years later when I found a used copy of the film tie-in  paperback to its second Hollywood incarnation under the title “The Omega Man” starring Charleston Heston. I was thrilled to discover that the novel outdid the film.

     “I am Legend” is one of those stories that just won’t let me go. It is so full of ideas and concepts that force me to play it over and over in my mind, all the while asking myself “what would I do in this situation?”


     The premise of the novel is a fairly simple one. A plague has decimated the entire planet and it appears as though only one man has survived it. And this isn’t just your normal pandemic where everyone starts coughing and sneezing before eventual falling down dead. Ok, they do all fall down dead. There’s only one catch. They don’t stay dead. The infected return from the dead as vampires or so it seems.

     The novel picks ups in January 1976 (it was published in 1954) and is told in first person style through the journal of Robert Neville, who seems to be the only one who has survived the plague. Robert has literally boarded himself up in his suburban home converting it into a fortress so that he can fend off the nightly onslaught of his undead neighbours.  He is a man living out his life under siege and it has taken its toll on his mental health.

     Robert Neville isn’t your typical heroic figure who has purpose and answers. He is a normal man being overwhelmed by his existence. While reading the novel you catch on quite quickly that the vampires are not the real threat in Robert’s existence. What are destroying him is pure and simply loneliness and despair. The man isn’t living; he simply exists on a day to day basis with no real goals or any kind of future perspective. Because of his loneliness, Robert is trapped in a downward spiral of madness and alcoholism.  It sounds clichéd, but robber Neville is his own greatest enemy in the novel. The story oozes an atmosphere of despair and hopelessness that makes it hard going at times. This is in no way a rousing adventure story of a man battling for humanity. There isn’t any humanity left in Matheson’s over run world of vampires.

     What immediately sets the novel apart from most vampire novels is Mr. Matheson’s scientific rational for the vampirism. These aren’t gothic supernatural entities. They are victims of a plague which has reanimated them and left them thirsting for blood. We discover that Neville spends his days fortifying his home defences and tracking the vampires to their lairs so he can exterminate them. He spends his night inside his barricaded suburban home drinking himself blind while playing records so loudly that he can’t hear the vampires taunts for him to come out.

Many of these vampires are old friends, neighbours and colleagues from his prior existence.  The female vampires will even perform lewd dances before his front door in an effort to lure him out. We find out the Robert is a man who truly wished to die, but can’t bring himself to take that last deciding step.

     The second third of the novel shows Neville coming to the realization that if he can’t bring himself to take his own life he must find a reason to live and not just to exist on a day to day basis He decides to discover the cause of the plagues and to maybe find a cure. Neville is not the scientist he is portrayed as in the three film adaptations of this novel. He has to teach himself microbiology. He goes about this by raiding the shelves for textbooks at the local library and scrounging up what medical equipment he can find. As he learn more and more about biology and pathogens he also begins to study and cold heartedly experiment on the vampires.

These experiments he conducts on (non)living subjects show a total lack of empathy that is quite horrify. He takes no pleasure in his experimentations, but neither does it disturb. He has simply quit perceiving his test subjects as anything related to humanity. He discovers that the plague has been caused by an air borne bacteria that first kills and then reanimates its victims. He also learns that behaviour of the vampires is both physiological and psychological. The reanimation, resistance to bullets, growth of fangs, thirst for blood, disintegration after staking and allergy to sunlight are genuine physical processes. The fear of mirrors, garlic and religious symbols are nothing more than self fulfilling prophecies. The victims realize that they are vampires. So it is only logical to them that they can’t stand their own reflections, the smell of garlic or symbols of the religions that they themselves practiced in their former lives since everyone “knows” that this is how vampires behave. Neville also discovers that all of the vampires are not dead. In some cases the victims have become “converted” without having been killed by the plague. This last point is something that will play a major role in the novels third and final act.

The novel’s final act has Neville discovering a woman, Ruth, wandering around in broad daylight. As he attempts to approach her she seems terrified of him and tries to flee. In a very unsettling scene he literally has to chase her down, restrain her and forcibly take her back to his home. Ruth tells him the story of how she has survived the last three years and how during that time her husband and child were killed. Now even though Neville is overjoyed at finding another survivor, the past three years of surviving in a world populated with vampires has made him a cold hearted and suspicious man. Don’t forget the man is still half insane. It’s just now that he’s a sober and lucid mad-man.  Robert immediately perceives that Ruth’s “story” is full of discrepancies so large that even John Holmes could drive through them without brushing against the sides.  We finally discover that Ruth isn’t the only survivor. There are many more. Unfortunately they are all infected but haven’t totally succumbed to vampirism. They have even developed a serum that halts most of the symptoms and the thirst for blood. And in comparison to the “genuine” vampires, they haven’t suffered any brain damage. These “survivors” are in full control of their faculties, one hundred percent aware of their situation and in the process of building a new society. Ruth is one of the leaders of this new order and has been sent to spy on Neville. Neville is at first overjoyed to hear of this. Ruth dampens his spirits though by informing him that the “new society” is out to get him. It seems that many of the vampires he disposed of during his daytime hunts were actually “survivors” who also have to sleep during the day. Thinking that the survivors will understand, he refuses to flee even though Ruth begs him to do so.

   The novel ends with Roberts capture and subsequent imprisonment while he awaits his execution for the “atrocities” he has committed.  As an act of mercy, Ruth gives him two tablets to take so he won’t suffer so badly during his execution. The novel ends with Neville looking out the window of his cell at the crowd that has gathered for his impending execution. As he see the fear and horror in their faces when the notice him watching them from his cell he realizes that he himself has become a monster and that he is

“A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.

 I am legend."

This is one damn good novel that will bounce around in your head for weeks afterward. It’s a fast read, but also a disturbing one.

     Even though the story will be 60 years old next year it has held up amazingly well. Matheson’s undecorated and straight forward prose is the main reason for this.

    The only problem, and it by no means Mr. Matheson’s  fault, is that this will probably come of as quite a familiar story to most  younger readers. For “I am Legend” is the progenitor of the “Zombie Apocalypse” genre. If you get a chance to see the 1964 film adaptation you immediately realize that this is George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”. It’s just starring Vincent Price and made 4 years before Romero’s film was made. Almost every single Zombie film mad after 1968 owes a huge debt to “Night of the Living Dead”. And NotLD owes an enormous debt to “I am Legend”. Unfortunately, because of this, many younger readers will have a strong sense of déjà vu when they read the novel. Which is an honest shame, since this is the story started it all.

The novel is a genuine masterpiece of not only genre literature, but also powerful study on loneliness and the toll it takes.

It’s still in print, so if you have never read it you should definitely seek it out and read it!

Take care and thanks for stopping by.


1 Kommentar:

  1. What a great book; read it originally in mid-60s; re-read it just last week. Never dawned on me, the NOTLD connection, but makes sense now you brought it up. Glad I found your blog, it's great reading.