Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Richard Matheson's I am Legend

"The past had brought something else, though; pain at remembering. Every recalled word had been like a knife blade twisting in him. Old wounds had been reopened with every thought of her. He'd finally had to stop, eyes closed, fists clenched, trying desperately to accept the present on its own terms and not yearn with his very flesh for the past. But only enough drinks to stultify all introspection had managed to drive away the enervating sorrow that remembering brought," - Richard Matheson, writing in his 1954 horror novel, "I Am Legend," which relates the tale of Robert Neville, the last man on earth in a world filled with vampire-like creatures, who is coping with the loss of his wife, Virginia, to the vampire plague.

Imagine a contemporary horror novel not unlike George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead film with a gritty dash of Cormac McCarthy's post apocalyptic novel, "The Road." Richard Matheson's novella, "I Am Legend," has the frightful and serious feel of both of those works, but it significantly predates both of them: the former by 14 years the latter by over 50. The blogger 1979 Semi-Finalist has it right when she notes that upon the novella's publication in 1954, "it must have been mind blowing in its revolutionary thinking."

"I am Legend" is set in a future in which a vampire plague has destroyed the world's population. The protagonist, Neville, believes himself to be the last human being on earth, and he has no evidence to the contrary. He spends his nights holed up in his fortress of a home and his days venturing out into the world to slay as many sleeping vampires as he is able. He has only his work by day and the solace of his home by night. But this is no action adventure story (although the forthcoming film adaptation featuring Will Smith may transform it into such). Neville's tale is one of lost love, loneliness, and longing for the flesh in a world bereft of everything he ever knew. Neville attempts to distract himself with music and booze but his thoughts are never too far from the wife and child that perished with the old world. Matheson describes Neville's coming to grips with the post apocalypse as follows:

In a world of monotonous horror there could be no salvation in wild dreaming. Horror he had adjusted to. But monotony was the greater obstacle, and he realized it now, understood it at long last. And understanding it seemed to give him a sort of quiet peace, a sense of having spread all the cards on his mental table, examined them, and settled conclusively on the desired hand.

Each night, a pack of vampires surrounds Neville's home, beckoning him to join them. Knowing he has no companionship, the female vampires lift up their skirts to tempt him. But to go outside would mean death, which is why he hunts by day to thin their ranks as much as possible.


But then, by chance, he stumbles across Ruth, a female survivor apparently unaffected by the plague. At first, she is timid and flees from Neville, who gives chase and captures her in an attempt to keep her safe from the vampires. He takes her to his home and slowly gains her trust. But he is conflicted:

As the moments passed he could almost sense himself drifting farther and farther from her. In a way he almost regretted having found her at all. Through the years he had achieved a certain degree of peace. He had accepted solitude, found it not half bad. Now this . . . ending it all.

He had accepted his fate as a loner; he had come to terms with his isolation. Now, in finding another human being to talk and relate to, he begins to long for the solitude he once had. Although he saw fit to complain of his loneliness, now he preferred it to this new interloper.

Would that he had acted on those feelings of doubt. Like so many new people in our lives, Ruth is not at all what she seems. She is actually sick with the virus that leads to vampirism. She is a spy sent to learn Neville's secrets and spill them to the new vampire society which has arisen. Although she began to feel some sympathy for Neville, she betrays him nevertheless, leading to his capture, imprisonment, and as the novella ends, the likelihood of execution.

Matheson's story is far, far more psychological and dark than the type of rubbish that we have come to expect from modern horror writers. It is difficult to imagine the new film version, written by Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich, directed by Francis Lawrence and opening this coming Friday, conveying this sense of complexity. (The studio picture starring Will Smith is not the first such adaptation; the novella became 1964's The Last Man on Earth and 1971's The Omega Man.). In 1954, writers like Matheson didn't write books as a mere predicate for selling movie rights to Hollywood. They were not attempting to shock for the sake of shock value or fill their pages with derivative postmodernist nonsense. Matheson's novel is less about a plague of vampirism than a man's isolation and avoidance of the world. The tone is a grim and amoral, for "[m]orality, after all, had fallen with society" and Neville is now "his own ethic."

Sound familiar?

2 comments:

1979 semi-finalist said...

hey, thanks for the link and vote of approval. great review. i really enjoyed the book/novella, i'm sure the Will Smith version will disappoint, but a girl can hope, right? did you see my comic about reading I Am Legend?

http://1979semifinalist.wordpress.com/2007/11/20/19-comic-of-the-day/

also, in addition to the horrible movie adaptations The Omega Man and The Last Man On Earth there is also a newer (and possibly even more horrible?) version called I Am Omega. Jeez. Looks awful. A fellow blogger on my blogroll wrote good reviews of both The Omega Man and The Last Man On Earth recently as well - you can find those here:

http://dudehesthestallion.wordpress.com/2007/11/19/one-hundred-thirteen-the-omega-man/

and here:

http://dudehesthestallion.wordpress.com/2007/11/25/one-hundred-fourteen-the-last-man-on-earth/

thanks again for link!

~1979semifinalist

Steven G. Harms said...

Re: Sound familiar

Nietzsche?