Review of I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/25/05
reason I’ve never been able to get the image of Vincent Price out of my head,
especially from his role in the 1964 Italian film called The Last Man On
Earth, based upon the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend. Yes, seven
years later another film, The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston, was made
from the book, but the Price film is both better and more faithful to the source
material. Here is how I described the images of Price in a sonnet called Vincent
Price In The Drapery Folds:
….all is tragic when one is without
as he in between the cloth and the glass or
the divine chaotics of wish and snowflake.
The film is a
very good one, especially on a low budget, which is about a post-apocalyptic
world where zombie-vampires harangue the last ‘normal man’, but it is not as
good as the novel, which, despite having vampires in it, is not a novel on
vampires, nor even a horror nor sci fi novel at all, in the deepest sense.
Instead, it is perhaps the greatest novel written on human loneliness. It far
surpasses Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe in that regard. Its insights
into what it is to be human go far beyond genre, and is all the more surprising
because, having read his short stories- which range from competent but
simplistic, to having classic Twilight Zone twists (he was a major
contributor to the original tv series) there is nothing within those short
stories that suggests the supreme majesty of the existential masterpiece I Am
Legend was aborning.
Not only is it more than a horror or sci fi tale, it is more than just a post-apocalyptic work as well. It is (written in 1953, and published in 1954) a far more subtle allegory on the McCarthyism of the day, as well the rigid conformity of the 1950s leading to the cultural sterilization and death of the masses. Compared to such filmic fare from that decade, as On The Beach- or its written source, or even The World, The Flesh, The Devil, it stands even higher because criticism from either side of the spectrum, politically- the idle and gullible Left and the vicious and pandering Right- was generally heavy-handed and obvious. Even when compared to later works, some with direct debts, like George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead and Dawn Of The Dead, or those intriguing alternative visions to the end of the world- Ursula LeGuin’s The Lathe Of Heaven (another great apocalyptic novel) or the 1985 New Zealand film The Quiet Earth, I Am Legend stands alone with its relentless focus on the self, and the relation to things exterior.
It deconstructs the vampire myth with modern methods, attempting to explain many of its legendary aspects with science- such as why non-Christian vampires would fear the cross- they don’t, why a stake kills a vampire but not a bullet- a stake allows corrupting air into the bodily glue of a vampire (although the silver bullet myth is untouched), why vampires can metamorphose into bats or wolves- they can’t, why some vampires turn to dust at death- their already long-dead bodies instantly decompose while living vampires’ bodies don’t, why mirrors repel them- psychological traumas, and a number of others.
The book is ostensibly about a post-World War 3 biological plague, in the late 1970s, in the Los Angeles, California area, that looses forth a germ that causes vampirism- re-automating the dead at night, and causing the still living to go comatose in the day, and run around like lunatics at night. The only person apparently unaffected by all this is a man in his late thirties, named Robert Neville, whose wife succumbed to the plague and became a vampire he killed, and whose daughter ended up being burned in a ceaseless fire pit for infected corpses. The book follows him from several months after his status as lone survivor is established to a few years later. He discovers the above facts about the disease that explain many of the legendary vampire characteristics. He autodidactically attempts to find reasons. After despair, boredom, and the ceaseless monotony of his daily hunts for the living and dead vampires, and the nightly attacks on his house-cum-fortress by them, it is just the age old quest for knowledge that impels him onward.
The descriptions of these events is moving, and Robert Neville is easily one of the most thoroughly examined characters in the annals of literature. Holden Caulfield is a petulant cipher, by comparison, and one who invites no real probe, for he is hardly alone in the real world, and has had many literary antecedents. Neither is true of Neville. Two of the most moving scenes occur when first Neville discovers a stray dog in his neighborhood, one of the few, if not only, to not become a vampire dog. There is an extended sequence that merely consists of his several weeks-long attempts to coax it to his side. A lesser writer would have probably condensed the scene, or extended it and added all sorts of metaphors to it, wholly diluting the singularly monomaniacal need that Neville has for companionship- any companionship- at that time. One can almost feel the tears and frustration that the character holds back, as he makes no moves, as he gets closer, day-by-day, to the dog, while feeding it on his front porch. The descriptions are sharp, unadorned, and poignant. The dog eventually weakens from the plague and dies. The loss is palpable in the book.
Later, he encounters a woman, named Ruth, and he suspects her of being a vampire, yet in the course of a single night of companionship and connection, he loses his inhibitions, and wants to test her to see if she has the plague. It turns out she does, knows she does, but he never gets to prove it, as she knocks him out. It seems she is a spy, and part of a group of living vampires that have learned to contain the disease, and are forming a new world, and live in mortal terror of Neville, as an angel of death, killing both the living and undead with wanton disregard for the differences. She leaves him a note, confessing her empathy and affection for him and his kindness, and warning him that once their group is strong enough, they will launch their revolution, rid the world of the undead, cure the diseased, and destroy Neville (and presumably any others like him they encounter)- who is a reminder of an old world, one that brought hell on earth, and damned the innocent, as well the guilty.
But, he does not heed her warning, scoffs at her claims, loathes her betrayal, and is too much a creature of habit. He resigns himself to continue as he has, over-drinking, chain smoking, listening to old LPs, and hunting ‘the other’, waiting for the day the New World Order arrives. He will throw himself on their mercy, and claim he did what he did in order to survive, unsure of the future. Yet, he has doubts- he always has. He realized some of those he killed via stake and other means were alive, that he experimented on some vampires, in the name of science, but in a Mengelean way, and that he has had lusts, especially for some of the shapely, younger, female vampires. There have been those erotically seductive female vampiresses that have struck lewd poses to seduce him into the night, and his demise. And he has fantasized of groping them, even raping them, even if it means his end. This depiction of the dual nature of lust and violence, death and sex, has never been more starkly reliefed in any novel.
In the end, the New Breed, somewhere between man and vampire, comes for Neville. He resists, after planning to go peacefully, and ends up mortally wounded. In his prison cell, slowly dying, as they prepare to publicly execute him, Ruth visits him, gives him cyanide, or some other such death pills, and he looks out his jail cell, and sees the new race gathered, hissing for his end, and he understands that it is not him that they hate, but what he represents, as the last of the old. He takes the pills and dies realizing that he will be eternal in their world- the anti-vampire. The monster that came in the day to kill the ‘normal people’ as they slept. A terrific inversion of the mythos. Robert Neville. The Great Destroyer- a mythic figure. Legend itself.
In a sense this book is also a precursor to the novel Planet Of The Apes, by Pierre Boulle, and the subsequent films and tv series that sprung from it. What is normal?, who is the real outcast?, and what is the role and duty of any individual to his/her society- especially when a minority, especially when a minority of one? All these questions crop up in both sets of myths. The idea of minorities, incidentally, took on an added dimension in the 1971 film of the Matheson tale, The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston in the Neville role, with the Ruth character (called Lisa- played by Rosalind Cash) as a black woman, who ‘shockingly’, according to the times, becomes his sex partner. This film ends melodramatically, with the vampires turned into plagued albino-cultists called The Family (recall, this was 1971 and the Manson Family was still big in the news), who eventually kill Neville, who dies in a Christ-like pose, as he ends up saving humanity, represented by young hippy kibbutz types, via a serum made of his blood.
Of course, Matheson has always had a thing for the outsider- his novel The Shrinking Man, basis for the cult 1950s film of the same name- save for the addition of Incredible to the title, also deal with similar themes. It’s interesting that hack authors as Dean Koontz and Stephen King, utterly contrived plot and device-driven writers, cite Matheson, and this work in particular, as influences. It’s just odd when people cite influences that are either superior to them, thus forcing you to wonder why the inferiors learnt little from their master, or are inferior, which makes you wonder why they revere someone they long surpassed.
Of course, some critics have pointed out some ‘flaws’ in the book- such as why Neville doesn’t realize Ruth’s true nature earlier. As she attacks him, and knocks him out he notices that the tan she had was makeup, a bronzer, yet earlier in the book he grabs her by the arms and it does not come off. Others claim that the New Breed acted irrationally against Neville, that he was not such a great threat, and if he was his actions were wholly understandable given his belief of what he was up against. But, I’d counter that Neville may have suspected her tan was fake, yet ignored signs, until the truth was too literally knocked into him. Nowhere is it a given that only what a narrator tells us is all there is, nor that any portion of it is true, even when much of it seems documentarian. Despite his doubts he greatly wanted to believe her, love her. As for the New Breed- this is easily explained by the fact that group think is always Lowest Common Denominator, and mobocracy has little in common with democracy. Other criticisms have to do with some anachronisms, such as Matheson assuming blacks would still be called Negroes in the 1970s, but that is a silly criticism, given that a novel today calling blacks African-Americans will naturally date, when in a decade or so a new term comes into vogue. It’s not a sign of racism, merely of the vagaries of the predictable fog that all predictive works have to contend with.
Another neglected aspect of the story is that it is a sub-genre of apocalyptic tales- namely nuclear nightmares. In some ways it has truck with the film Godzilla, King Of The Monsters, that came out the same year as I Am Legend. Godzilla was the result of nuclear war, and wreaked great vengeance on mankind, almost as a force of nature to slap mankind down. In a way, so too, has Neville become the great avenger on mankind, because of a nuclear, or biological war, a force of nature who discards his humanity when he kills wantonly, pulls vampires out in the sun, to watch them die, all in the name of science. In both tales, though, mankind survives, although in different ways. In Godzilla mankind, as it is, gets by by the skin of its collective teeth, while in I Am Legend it is forever altered, even as it survives. The ultimate winner in the showdown between man and nature is yet to be determined, in both works. The allegory to the atom bomb is all the more relevant when one considers that Americans demonized not only all Japanese, subjecting them to massive fire raids that devastated the Japanese mainland before dropping the atom bombs, but also Japanese-Americans, loyal citizens who had no ties to Imperial Japan, save heritage. The demonized then suffered to an even greater retributive demon, nuclear war, although I believe justified, which nonetheless made America a destroyer on par with its reviled enemy, if not greater.
Given its timing, the allegory to HUAC, McCarthy, Nixon and company cannot be denied. Neville is one of the first true anti-heroes in modern literature, but a different sort of anti-hero- far more so than a Mike Hammer, or his many knock-offs. He is an anti-hero not because he is a bad boy by nature, but by sheer circumstance. His actions are all eminently defensible, and any normal court of law would find his killing of the ‘living’ vampires justifiable since they made no bones about killing him, joining the undead with no hesitation. And it is not that Neville is not without compassion. When the New Breed finally come for him they gleefully murder all the vampires that plague Neville’s home- including his former best friend Ben Cortman, a Jewish vampire. He is described by Neville as looking like comedian Oliver Hardy, and the details of the final hunt of Cortman, by the New Breed, is oddly moving, and Neville sees it as more than the final act of his relationship with Cortman, whom he sought to kill for years, as Cortman had been the main vampire who specifically sought and called Neville out for death, so obsessed with his old friend that he seemed smarter than the other vampires- his hiding place in the day a place Neville never thought to look. Neville sees Cortman’s demise as the very death of humor itself. The world is now fully void of joy, and the New Breed of gleeful murderers has usurped even Neville, the Great Destroyer, himself, with their wanton and perverse bloodlust- less driven by need, as in Neville, but a speciously justified sadism, as they could easily dispatch the undead in the day, when they were helpless, but joy in watching them suffer in the darkness. In many ways, this suggests that while there are physical and evolutionary changes in mankind, wrought by the disease, man’s fundamental nature has not changed. It is remarkably consistent. Surprisingly little has changed because of the plague, at least, inwardly. ‘The Other’ is no longer defined by race, religion, or nationality, but by vampirism alone. Although, there seems little doubt that, since the inward nature of man has not changed, that when the New Breed purifies the earth of the undead, and eventually cures itself, not merely controls the disease, it will easily slip back into the petty distinctions and hatreds that wrought their plagued state in the first place.
Having recently read Walter Miller’s apocalyptic triptych A Canticle For Leibowitz, I got the eerie feeling that I Am Legend may actually have been appended to that work as the description of what came before the first of the three novellas, set six hundred years after the fall. If you’ve read Miller’s book you know that the New Breed is most likely as doomed as the old.
Yet, there is something undeniably noble about Neville- he has transformed himself from an anonymous man, with wife and child, living in a suburb, of no great skills nor ambitions, to a man ready to meet his calling as the last of his kind. Whether or not he is is unknown. In that sense I Am Legend holds out hope. The fate that awaits LA, as haven of a New Order, may or may not be what awaits the whole world. There could be many Nevilles, who band together to act as he did, and wipe out both the New Breed and the undead, and restore mankind proper to its place on top of the Terran food chain. But, that has no bearing to Neville. His world ends over and again- in a gruesome torture with no meaning that he can descry: first with the deaths of others, then with his ideas of society, then his ideas of his own self and ethics, then with the death of the undead, then his own death. Along the way, though, he has ameliorated- given up his vices, sharpened his mind, lost his fears and preconceptions, yet not his empathy- not wholly, as his emotions over Cortman prove. This Better Man is the natural enemy of the New Breed- they are conformist, he is individualist. They are almost wholly without compassion (save for Ruth), he is not. They have not fundamentally changed from the hatred and horror that affected past human cultures, nor transcended it, he has. Neville is a sort of Übermensch, even as he suicides- thus his legend is not wholly malign, but an example, in the end, of selflessness, and possibly an inspiration, if the Ruths of the New Order have any power- which we learn she does.
It’s also interesting to note that Neville is the classic 1950s suburbanite- the sine qua non of the 20th Century American Ideal, and that the vampires are the ruthless invaders, the other, not unlike the creeping fears of crime in the day. Inglewood, where Ruth and the New Order presumably hail from, if she is to be believed, later became a center of black gang activity, with the apt name of The Bloods as one of the major gangs, and many of the vampires are described as glassy-eyed and aimless- the very state that junkies occupy. Quite a prescient nod, even if unintended. Yet, such is another hallmark of great art- something that far transcends the creator’s intent.
Yet another interesting point is that the title is I Am Legend, not I Am A Legend. The articular difference is not arbitrary. It more intimately associates the reader with the protagonist, as well as a more sweeping idea of legendry itself, not any particular legend- even the one it deconstructs and reassembles. Read this piece, and realize that the narrator throughout has been an omniscient- perhaps Neville from the afterdeath, but perhaps not. Ask yourself this, is it Neville or Matheson that breaks out and confronts the reader through the mythic fourth wall?:
....Is he worse than the distiller who gave bastardized grain juice to
stultify the brains of those who, sober, were incapable of progressive
thought? (Nay, I apologize for this calumny; I nip the brew that feeds me.) Is
he worse, then, than the publisher who filled ubiquitous racks with lust and
death wishes? Really, now, search your soul, lovie- is the vampire so bad?
All he does is drink blood.
Why, then, this unkind prejudice, this thoughtless bias?
It’s not quite clear, and while this is the most obvious instance I can recall it is not the only time the query sat up and barked.
At book’s end the point is driven home again. Is the last line Matheson’s self-congratulatory pat on the back (well deserved, and a proper damning of false modesty), Neville’s final realization (in both senses), or both?:
Robert Neville looked out over the new people of the earth.
He knew he did not belong to them; he knew that, like the vampires, he was
anathema and black terror to be destroyed. And, abruptly, the concept came,
amusing him even in his pain.
A coughing chuckle filled his throat. He turned and leaned against the wall while he swallowed the pills. Full circle, he thought while the final lethargy crept into his limbs. Full circle. A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.
I am legend.
I should add that in making my selections of quotes that I went in a
random fashion (save for the book’s end, directly above), thus why I also do
not give their page numbers, nor chapter locations, for I want to emphasize that
you can literally open this book up anywhere, on any page, and the writing never
falters, never sags. Some have wished the book went on- what higher compliment
is there? Others have similarly railed it is too brief- but we know all we need
to know of that world. Matheson can be detailed, yet leave the reader wanting
more, spare, yet tell us all we need to know of a situation or character.
I would also suggest that there are two other very cogent parallels that I Am Legend has with very popular works of the 1950s. I mentioned HUAC and McCarthyism, and the most noted work of fiction to come directly out of that was the 1956 sci fi film Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, by Don Siegel, based upon a short story, The Body Snatchers, by Jack Finney, which was one of many regarding such a theme over the prior two decades. Both it and I Am Legend deal with the replacement of ‘normal’ humans by others who are virtual döppelgängers, ones who can literally wither away under certain conditions- the difference being the former was a more subtle invasion from the without, whereas the latter dealt with an overt corruption from within. Yet, both end ambiguously- not for Neville, but for humanity.
The other work that I would tie to it is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, which premiered on January 5th, 1953- the same year I Am Legend was written. Looked on as philosophical treatises there is much in common. Both take place on blighted, and deserted, tableaux, both works go through long stretches were little happens, both are essentially interior monologues (although Godot achieves this through the breaking down of the mind into personified aspects), much is repeated, with slight variations, in both works (and both suffered critically for it), and finally, both are fundamentally about what it means to be human- albeit the two works have many divergences. Neville, though, in a sense, is a Godot, as well as the aspective Vladimir and Estragon, for he sees himself, at various times, as needing to achieve certain things, and get somewhere, although who may be waiting for him at his unknown destination he has no clue of, only the vaguest hopes. That two such works should incarnate in the same year may be a happy coincidence, or a sign of the times. Either way, the public won.
Take a look at the singular existential angst of this piece:
thought about that visionary lady. To die, he thought, never knowing the fierce
joy and attendant comfort of a loved one’s embrace. To sink into that hideous
coma, to sink then into death and, perhaps, return to sterile, awful wanderings.
All without knowing what it was to love and be loved.
a tragedy more terrible than becoming a vampire.
He shook his head. All right, that’s enough, he told himself, you haven’t got time for maudlin reveries.
It lingers, then veers a hundred and eighty degrees, as many of us do, at
least those of us not burdened with manic states. In such a moment Neville
‘realizes’, even as he realizes something. Neville resigns himself to go on,
just to go on. Perhaps there is a hope guiding him, but there need not be-
there’s sadness, beauty, terror, anger, and pride in this small snippet, and
it helps flesh Neville out from mere anti-hero, or the even more rarely used,
and interesting, unhero- he who is just average, with no discernible darkness to
counterpoise the light of heroism.
Contrast that to this snippet, describing the same man:
He tried briefly to get back to the problem of the bacilli, but he
realized that he couldn’t concentrate on anything except the dog. To his
complete astonishment, he later found himself offering up a stumbling prayer
that the dog would be protected. It was a moment in which he felt a desperate
need to believe in a God that shepherded his own creations. But, even praying,
he felt a twinge of self-reproach, and knew he might start mocking his own
prayer at any second.
Somehow, though, he managed to ignore his iconoclastic self and went on praying anyway. Because he wanted the dog, because he needed the dog.
Neville, again, realizes, because he is no square-jawed Spillane-like character, even as Matheson knows how to deploy Spillane’s deft spare poetic touches, such as, applied to monotony itself:
After lunch he went from house to house and used up all his stakes. He had forty-seven stakes.
I love Spillane, and have argued for his superiority to many of his genre
before, but, I doubt if he was ever capable of doing a novel with
this level of realism, poetry, texture, depth, and meaning, nor creating a
character like Robert Neville- loaded with frailties that are strengths at some
times, and weakness the rest of the time. Somehow, I think, Mike Hammer would
have ended up as Lord of the New Earth Matheson paints, not submitting to its
dictates, and that’s an important feature of the book- adaptability. Neville
and the undead vampires and the living plague sufferers all evolve.
Neville, by book’s end, a singularity, sees the good of the many outweighs the
good of the few, or the one. At novel’s start that is not so. Mike Hammer
would have taken on his tormentors, of both stripes, day and night, until his
Yet, a mark of any enduring work of art is its continued, and renewable, relevance through time. A half a century on Neville himself emerges as another sort of figure of the Right- not as the Van Helsing-like McCarthy, but the solipsistic, indolent corporate fat cats and paranoid, self-pitying Goddists of the Bush era. Like the modern Right believes itself to be, he is besieged in a redoubt, fending off the mindless drones of blood and hedonism (the harlot vampires ‘posing like lewd puppets in the night’), even as he is anachronized. He joys in small victories. He loses himself in an idealized past, fortifies himself with the remnants of a lost glory (Classical music), lashes out at his enemies with no regard to differences, and that some of them are far more like him than he admits, and loses himself in fantasies of violence and sex, not unlike the Timothy McVeigh crowd.
Many questions remain at tale’s end: Why did the New Breed have to wait so long to come and get Neville? Was Neville really the last man on earth, or just in LA, or his part of LA? Why were the dead and living vampires so dumb- even Neville queries why they didn’t simply set his house on fire?
We’ll never know, and why should we? Have we been enlightened, entertained? Yes. That’s all that a work of art need do. Too many modern writers go overboard with masturbatory detail, thinking that good writing consists of the curlicues of minutia, squared! The idea being that detailed boredom is better than plain old boredom. My wife has complained of passages in the novel Cold Mountain where the author, Charles Frazier, spends pages describing the details of Civil War weaponry, yet his characters are utter stereotypes. He doesn’t get it. Matheson did in I Am Legend. There are gaps in the science of I Am Legend- they were apparent in 1954, and some of the science is even more manifestly dated now. But, it’s still plausible, if not as real science fiction, certainly as fantasy, and truly as allegory, and the book’s real raison d’etré. Yet, a work can be wholly fantastical and succeed if its tale grips and its characters connect. Plausibility gives way to the motive- in both senses of what drives the tale and what the style accomplishes in doing so.
That all said, I have no hesitation claiming that I Am Legend is easily one of the ten best novels I have ever read- right up there with Mark Twain’s The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, or The Whale, Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and a few arguments over a tale or two from William Kennedy and some others.
And yet, somehow, I am still drawn to the Vincent Price interpretation of the Robert Neville character (called Robert Morgan in The Last Man On Earth), and my sonnet Vincent Price In The Drapery Folds, for that is where our deepest terrors lie- in the mundane, in the human tendency to see a curtain rustle and expect some ghost or nosferatu to be its cause, rather than a stray breeze. This is why ‘the divine chaotics of wish and snowflake’ is so essential to science fiction and horror. It is the within, admixed with the without, however briefly (for snowflakes are amongst the most ephemeral things in the macro-world), where horror spawns. Matheson knew it, and I Am Legend is a perfect snowflake, whose beautiful fears are forever frozen in words.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 1/05 Hackwriters website.]
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