Richard Matheson: I Am Legend

An SF novel about vampires…

Robert Neville is the last living man on Earth…but he is not alone. Every other man, woman and child on the planet has become a vampire, and they are hungry for Neville’s blood.

By day he is the hunter, stalking the undead through the ruins of civilisation. By night, he barricades himself in his home and prays for the dawn. How long can one man survive like this?

A quick note to the reader: if you have not yet read I Am Legend and you are hoping to in the future, I would give this post a wide berth. I have not been particularly coy about plot giveaways and such. I warn you here because there is nothing worse than finding a spoiler whilst trying to use others’ experiences to gauge whether to buy the book or not.

I will try to keep this brief as I am writing this on a train with no mains connection for charging my laptop.

With this first book, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, I had one of my very rare occurrences of seeing the film version before I read the book. To be honest, when I first saw the film in 2007 I was not aware that it was a book to begin with, let alone a 1950’s novel. As I mentioned in the previous post, I am a big J. G. Ballard fan and I was surprised that reading-by-association hadn’t led me to I Am Legend sooner. A friend introduced me to the book, years later, after he had read it. He recommended it and I, I am sad to say, promptly forgot about it; mainly because I had seen the film and was not particularly enthralled.

To use a new twist on an old standard, never judge a book by its film! I found the protagonist Robert Neville much more realistically flawed and human in the book, more in keeping with the ‘average guy wins out’ theme (or doesn’t ultimately, as is ironically the case) that Matheson seemed to have been going for. I am going to try and not keep referring to the film because the book and the film are in completely different territories. Their medium, aims, audiences and eras were completely different, among many other things, so there would be little point doing so in my eyes.

Addressing the ‘vampire’ description of the story, recent popularity of the vampire character in popular fiction has rendered this once classic gothic horror character into a romanticised ideal. I am not saying I am not guilty of reading the romanticised novels myself. I also at the time of reading enjoyed them. Nevertheless, I am happy to say that this novel conforms to the traditional perception of a vampire, meaning that they are a gothic horror genre character, not a heartthrob.

I know I did say I wouldn’t be comparing the book to the film and vice versa, I just want to point out that during the film I was not aware that the infected creatures were intended to be vampires. I can only assume it was an active choice to disassociate the film creatures from being characterised the same as the creatures were in the book.

For this reason, when I was confronted with the blurb beginning “An SF novel about vampires…” I was a little taken aback to say the least. I must admit I rolled my eyes at the idea of combining vampires and apocalypse, thinking, “how could this possibly work in classic sci fi”? But then again I was still labouring under the illusion that the topical heartthrob character would be used. More fool me!

Matheson puts this gothic character in a new setting for my experience; post-apocalypse. It somehow works as a fitting new setting, bringing the character crashing out of gothic castles and Whitby and into 20th century fiction set in the post-apocalyptic 1970s. Matheson seems to be able to pretty much get away with using the vampire character without too much of a stretch of the imagination by associating them with the apocalyptic classic method of a mass pandemic infection.

By following the day-to-day life of Neville, the reader can find a relatable anchor in amongst the vampire-infection-apocalyptic world. I mostly find that the best sci fi and fantasy novels have something to keep the reader grounded, something that the reader can associate with. It just helps the author connect with their readers; making the least believable (and usually the more creatively imagined) features of the novel more believable by association.

We always wonder how we would react in an apocalyptic situation and I think we would all hope we would have at least half the success that Neville has. He is a typical human being, not some almost super human that we would have envied in the pre-apocalyptic life, just happening to have a mastery of combat, inbuilt knowledge of medicine and, naturally, is a survival genius. I think my favourite part of his character is his ability to learn what he needs to know as and when he needs it, not just have the knowledge conveniently previously ingrained as many characters handily do in any genre of novel. This maybe my librarian side coming out but I particularly loved his aptitude for using the library to learn how to firstly do DIY around his house and then to do the some might say more in depth task of curing the world of the infection.

So concludes my chat. My laptop battery is low, I am near my destination and so I must leave.

I am next chatting (I am not calling it reviewing as I am more just letting out my thoughts onto paper at the moment) about The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, which I would particularly welcome thoughts on as my knowledge on war is not extensive, a personal problem I found whilst reading the novel!

Until then…

Happy reading!

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