October 08, 2012

Because It Is Bitter (Review: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson)

I Am Legend
Richard Matheson
Gollancz 2006 (originally published 1954)

Another day, another post-apocalyptic book review. As Splendibird has pointed out, Hallowe'en approaches so it's time to rustle up our best costumes (I'm doing 'Sexy Book Reviewer' this year), carve up a lantern and curl up with a favourite scary story. I'll be doing my part for Mountains Of Instead with forays into spooky songs, frightening films and bone-chilling books. For my first festive selection I'm returning to one of my very favourite novels ever, Richard Matheson's I Am Legend.

Set in the southern part of LA County, somewhere near Inglewood in the near future (actually our past I suppose), I Am Legend follows Robert Neville, a grizzled and weary 40-ish alcoholic as he faces up to his new reality. The world has been torn apart, first by bombs and the violent dust storms they have unleashed but more importantly by the plague which followed in their wake. Over the course of several months the whole of humanity succumbed to a transformation, slowly becoming sicker and sicker until they were comatose during the daylight hours, averse to garlic and religious symbols and driven into a frenzy by a thirst for blood and violence.

Neville finds himself utterly alone in this horrific new world. By day he scours his neighbourhood for supplies and repairs his house and fortress, disposing of any infected individuals he discovers by the methods he knows work best: stake, sunlight or fire. By night he locks himself in his house, relatively safe behind his security measures of garlic, mirrors and crosses. The vampires, as Neville has come to recognize them, congregate outside from dusk till dawn, baiting him with taunts and insults (especially his former neighbour Ben Cortman) and sexual provocation - Robert does still have a man's urges, having lost his wife and all prospect of female companionship to the plague.

The stage is set for what could have been a pitched battle between man and mythical beast, a blood-soaked last-man-standing cataclysm as Neville repels the invaders night after night. Instead, Matheson chooses to focus on his lead character and how he adapts to the nightmare around him. This is the book's strength and what found me locked inside the house alongside him during his trial. Unlike many movie heroes (Will Smith, I'm looking at you) he is just a man. Bitter, enraged at the hand he's been dealt and lacking any magic bullets to clear his path. His nights are alcohol-fuelled binges and blackouts, annihilating himself with whisky while blasting classical music to drown out the howls outside his door. He's no noble creature, his animal urges leading him even to consider assaulting the hideous females parading themselves in his driveway every night.

However, like every human he is also capable of greatness. In I Am Legend, Richard Matheson gets right under the skin of vampirism, casting aside the old superstitions and mysticism to probe a scientific angle. Once Neville manages to accept his fate and control his self-destructive urges he channels all of his energies into finding the cause of the plague. Equipping himself with books on blood, bacteria and biology as well as lab equipment he methodically arranges his knowledge of what his opponents are and what they are not. Which weapons work and which are naught but folklore? And why?

In one of the books great contributions to the cornucopia of vampire lore, Matheson asserts that crosses will not necessarily have any effect on a vampire. Why would they when the affliction is borne by a germ? In a wonderful example of scientific thinking, Neville asserts that the sporadic efficiency of crosses in instilling fear in the undead is caused by expectation we have that it would do so. Our western, Christian background spoke of vampires being unholy beasts, afraid only of the power of god. On being reanimated we retain some of our memories and this crude fear becomes magnified in those from our cultural milieu. How does Neville test his hypotheses? By approaching his former neighbour Cortman, a Jew, with first a crucifix (no effect) and then a Talmud – bingo!

Through the course of the novel Robert is beset by all manner of calamities, each threatening to send him back to the bottle or just throw in the towel for good. The episode where he finds a dog still alive and apparently well is heartbreaking in its conclusion. Neville is not easily deterred though, stubborn as a mule he keeps on working through an increasingly bleak series of realisations. The finale of the book is the true reason I love it so dearly. The title comes from the last three words printed and it left me stunned on my first read. Of course I had seen it all coming but the way Matheson handles the climax to Neville's adventure is truly masterful and only after reading do you realise what a huge influence Matheson has had on horror and sci-fi in the decades since.

Now, I can't end this without a cursory word about the movies (The Last Man On Earth, The Omega Man, I Am Legend) which have been based on this book. However, all of these films took such liberties with the story that it is fair to say that there has, thus far, been NO real adaptation of I Am Legend. The recent version failed dismally in its casting – Neville is clearly Dr Cox from Scrubs, not Will Smith – and committed a truly heinous crime: despite shooting an ending reasonably true to the book they balked at test audience reactions and released a Hollywood-friendly sequel set-up instead. Scumdogs, the lot of them.

So, save yourself the trouble of viewings and go straight for the source. I Am Legend is everything you could want from this kind of novel. Aspects of sci-fi, horror, post-apocalyptica and the examination of the protagonist make this a wonderfully rounded read. Perfect for an evening in front of the fire while ignoring those pesky kids in their 'Sexy Spongebob' outfits.


This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. I Am Legend is available in both traditional and digital format from all good bookstores and is highly recommended as an All Hallow's Read.




1 comments:

Natframpton said...

Great review, I've always wanted to see how it compared to the film. Thanks for sharing