Sunday, 14 March 2010

A Legendary Book

I am Legend (Richard Matheson, 1954)

This month I finally got around to reading Richard Matheson’s 1954 sci-fi/horror classic I am Legend. It’s one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years as it’s had such a major impact on modern sci-fi and horror movies and literature. I’ve seen the three films based on it - The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price, The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston and, of course, I am Legend (2007) starring The Fresh Prince and a dog. Even before reading the book I didn’t much like any of these films with the exception of The Last Man on Earth, which, though very low budget, at least seemed faithful and starred the great Vincent Price. I really do hate The Omega Man what with its trippy albino hippies while I am Legend is a decent enough blockbuster vehicle for Will Smith but I knew even before reading the book that it missed the whole point of Matheson’s story by going all CGI Hollywood on us.

For those who don’t know the story of the book, it goes like this:

A plague has swept across the world killing most of humanity and turning them in to vampires. The ones it has infected but who haven’t died have also become vampires. As such the main character Robert Neville appears to be the last human left on Earth.

Neville spends his days out of his fortress house gathering supplies and finding the living and the dead vampires and staking them for a final death. By night he holds up under siege from a horde of bloodsuckers led by one time neighbour Ben Cortman who desperately wants to get at Neville, hurling abuse and taunts at his home guarded by garlic and crosses – all of which seeming to work in the traditional way. Neville has lost his wife and young daughter to the plague and so spends a great deal of time in depression and in heavy drinking. His loneliness is always threatening to destroy him faster than any vampire could. He spends a couple of years this way until he eventually discovers a new mission and point to his life. He decides to learn about diseases and germs and sets out to discover the true source of the vampire plague. He also wants to find out how come all the traditional vampire lore seems to be true – sunlight killing them, fear of crosses, repelled by garlic, unable to cross running water, killed by a stake through the heart. And, of course, how come he alone seems immune.

I am Legend is a fascinating tale that works on several levels.

Firstly, it takes the familiar folklore of vampirism and treats it as a disease; a natural based condition rather than a supernatural one. Over time, Neville does indeed identify the cause of the plague and discover the scientific based reasons for all the familiar vampire attributes. Some of which are surprising but do make a weird kind of sense and are backed up by reasoned arguments. To my knowledge this is probably the first time this approach to vampires was ever taken. Nowadays we see it a lot with the likes of Blade, Ultraviolet, Underworld and the recent Daybreakers, that last one owing a huge debt to Matheson.

Secondly, the book works as a character study. It’s a dark and tragic tale of loneliness, isolation, guilt and regret. Neville feels constant guilt over the death of his wife, Virginia, whom he loved intensely. We see some of their life together in flashback including when she first became ill. And we also see in flashback the horrific night where she comes back to him as a vampire and what he then had to do. Neville of course feels guilty about having had to kill Virginia as a vampire, but more so about having survived the plague while she didn’t. Throughout the book he is constantly talking to her, either out loud or in his mind, saying things like “I’ll be with you soon, Virge.” Neville often falls in to deep depressions, losing track of time and of himself, resulting in sudden mortal dangers such as being caught outside for too long as the sun falls and the vampires come out to hunt. He is also constantly reminded of his old life by the nightly appearance and taunting from his old friend and neighbour Ben Cortman. One of the most interesting things in the book is the sexual nature of Neville’s guilt. Because he is all alone and still has the normal male urges, he finds himself aroused by the female vampires who come out at night and display themselves to him, trying to lure him to them. This is a familiar theme in vampire stories: the sexual undercurrent including dangerous sexual temptation. And Neville hates himself for the thoughts that go through his head and the reaction his body has to their offered flesh. More than once he almost gives in and goes to them, but manages to pull back at the last moment.

Thirdly, I am Legend works as a morality tale. A fable about ones place in the world. About seeing the wider view and not giving in to mindless fear and prejudice, about trying not to become that which you despise the most. For it eventually becomes apparent to Neville that the world has changed forever. There is no going back. Humanity as he knew it has gone, with a new species now born in its stead. A species that is trying to carve out a new society from the ruins of the old. But one thing stands in their way. The one who murders their kind by day, slaying loved ones – mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children. The object of their fear and hate, the bogeyman that comes for them while they sleep. There is only one way this story can end.

I am Legend is a great book, a justifiable classic. It is short (180 pages), simply told, lightly plotted, yet dense with ideas and character. Neville is an everyman. He is not a soldier or scientist or whatnot. He is smart and resourceful, sure, but he also has to learn about things to survive and progress. He spends years learning about diseases and germs so he can try and work out what happened to the world. Even then he gets things wrong.

Having now read the book, the Vincent Price movie is by far the closest in terms of plot and themes. The Will Smith one is pretty far removed and it irks me even more that they took a book full of such great ideas and a brilliant and challenging central one (which is the entire point of the book’s title) and discarded it in favour of standard Hollywood heroics. They entirely missed the point of Matheson’s story. Twats! Reading I am Legend I couldn’t help but think that back in his heyday John Carpenter could have made a wicked film out of it. Shame he didn’t get the chance.

But if you ever get the chance, then pick up a copy and read it. It’s a seminal work. It’s the stuff of legend.

Next up on my book pile is Handling the Undead, Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist’s follow up to his excellent Let the Right One In.

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