Sunday, August 15, 2010

SF Masterworks #2: Richard Matheson, I Am Legend

I finished reading I am Legend weeks ago, but writing a review is a daunting task, especially when trying to evaluate whether or not Matheson’s book fits the criteria for a ‘Masterwork.’ The book has been printed in the 1950s and society has since changed considerably. The departure from the cultural background adds a challenge, since I have no idea how society thought back then.

This task of evaluating Matheson’s story became even more difficult when I found Matheson's writing to be dry, minimalist, and monotonous and other adjectives in the same vein. To match his prose in the Spartan spirit, his dialogue is stripped to the point where it reads like a script, with line exchanges dominating the page with little to no tags or any description in-between. The opening twenty pages or so, which present Robert Neville's routine as the sole human in a town infested with vampires, bored me, but I guess the monotony here was intentional to a point as it established an atmosphere of flavorless repetition.

A long bench covered almost an entire wall, on its hardwood top a heavy band saw; a wood lathe, an emery wheel, and a vise. Above it, on the wall, were haphazard racks of the tools that Robert Neville used.

He took a hammer from the bench and picked out a few nails from one of the disordered bins. Then he went back outside and nailed the plank fast to the shutter. The unused nails he threw into the rubble next door.

Even so, I found the torment Robert felt from the vampires' taunts and his own sexual urges over the top, if not a bit caricatured and bland. At the same time I can understand how he reacts the way he does, because he is under psychological attack every night and like all men in their prime has a libido, which can affect the mind. But then again, it’s the 1950s and the sexual revolution was way ahead. This explains how something hilarious to me would be dire for someone with the state of mind from the 1950s.

It might sound as if I didn't enjoy this novel, but after Robert reaches the bottom of his despair, flirts with the idea of suicide and then decides to be proactive about his situation, I am Legend becomes enticing. Upon completion I understood why I am Legend was included in the Masterworks list and why it should remain there even in today's context. After much consideration, I decided to discard my usual method and adopt a more structured approach for my review. I’ll list the main reasons as to why I am Legend works as a Masterwork.

First, published during the Cold War (1954 to be exact, which if Wikipedia is to be trusted, is when the tension escalated), I am Legend conveys that particular Zeitgeist of the threat of a Nuclear War, the result of which here is an epidemic unlike any other. This is hinted with subtlety since Matheson only mentions bombings once and their responsibility for the dust storms in the 1970s, when the novel takes place. Right now, the world is past the possibility of a Nuclear War, but the fear of a large scale epidemic remains strong (swine flu anyone or is that too soon?). Fear of disease is often a sign of a subconscious social fear. By presenting vampirism as a virally transmitted condition, which has surpassed the Black Death in devastation, Matheson taps into an archetypical phobia each nation carries. In that sense I am Legend will remain relevant until we cure all possible diseases.

I am Legend is at its core a retelling of Robinson Crusoe. The island is replaced with a house and the ocean keeping him captive is the swarming of undead. However, I can't say the clever deduction is mine, since at some point the author draws the comparison in the text. Even so, the appeal of the trope retains its original power as it is inspiring to see a human in isolation and in danger rise to the occasion. Where Crusoe had to utilize his mind and talents in a purely physical manner, Robert Neville strives not only for survival (he fashions weapons for his self-defense, maintains a generator and scavenges for necessary food and supplies), but he also reads franticly books on blood, viruses and medicine. He aims to decipher what caused vampirism and to prove that it is in fact viral. The reader is treated to a brilliant theory being born through trial and error, which on its own is satisfying to read. What makes it outstanding is how Matheson marries the scientific with the superstitious. While a virus is responsible for the physiological alterations, the validity of common myths such as stakes and garlic and crosses can be explained with the power of mind over matter and how the human psyche has perceived vampires before the victims turned into ones themselves.

Another strength of this novel is how Matheson applies emotional layers to his work. I am speaking about the chapter in which Robert befriends a dog and deals with how loneliness is its own brand of insanity. As social beings we fear isolation and for good reason as Matheson scratches the surface of what eventual psychological harm it can cause. I won't go in detail, because it has to be experienced. I was moved, which I considered to be almost impossible, since the style is uninviting and because I’m against the use of animal companions in fiction. More often than not, they’re boring or a deus ex machina waiting to happen. Matheson’s ability to write touching scenes involving a dog was an achievement given my own dislikes and cemented my belief that this novel is above average. In order for a novel to be memorable, it has to engage the mind as well as anchor the memory with a strong emotion.

If so far I thought I am Legend is above average, then the final revelation about this new world and the ending blew my mind away. After living for three years alone, Robert comes into contact with a woman, Ruth, whom he sees in the fields and after a wild chase takes into his home. Needless to say, by then Robert isn't much of a human himself, his voice is awkward from lack of use and he has lost most of his social skills. He’s become a predator, deprived of speech and similar in some respects to the vampires. His distrust is animalistic, but he manages to let his guard down only to be betrayed by Ruth and discover that the vampire virus has mutated. The result of this mutation is a brand new society of intelligent and self-aware vampires, vampires which feel and have retained their humanity. To them Robert is the true monster, a sociopathic bogeyman responsible for the death of hundreds of vampires, the executioner of a miniature genocide, a dark legend. It is the combination of this abrupt role reversal and the realization of being extinct that makes for such a powerful and memorable ending.

As a conclusion, I am Legend is still a competitor and has enough to make a reader think about before losing its relevancy.


  1. An interesting one this. When I first read this (on the recommendation of the chap in the bookshop) I read it in one night. At that time, I have to admit to dismissing it (slightly) as being an above average piece of 50s pulp.

    When, however, I saw the Will Smith film, I realised that, actually, this was a pretty decent novel which holds up better 50-odd years later than I suspect that the recent film will.

  2. I actually loved the movie, even though it had little in common with the book, which I also consider a classic.

    However, was it really necessary to recap the whole book in the review, including the final plot-twist? I mean, at least some sort of warning for those who haven't read it yet?

  3. Insightful note on Matheson's TV-like minimalist style (which I liked): Matheson wrote for TV, including The Twilight Zone.

    And, yes, oddly enough Wikipedia can be trusted in the case of 1954 being the height of the Cold War. It was a year after the Korean War, and two years before Kruschev would tell us, "We will bury you."

    Aside from that, I think the novel will hold up much longer than any of the films, though the recent Will Smith version was quite good.

  4. A great novel, I think. Haven't seen the Will Smith film but the book is far better than The Omega Man. Yes, it's a somewhat pulpy read but it's tightly written, which is more than can be said for a lot of science fiction. The ending is a very clever rug-puller that might have felt cheap if it wasn't so profound.