Charles Dee Mitchell's Reviews > I Am Legend and Other Stories

I Am Legend and Other Stories by Richard Matheson
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Apr 08, 12

bookshelves: mid-century-sf, horror
Read on April 08, 2012

Matheson's novel was recently given a special Bram Stoker Award by the Horror Writers' Association for Best Vampire Novel of the Century. I have not read much of the competition, but I have no quibble with the selection. I am Legend came out in 1955 and I read it about a decade later. I still remember that it caused me intense anxiety, and the lingering experience of anxiety, rather than having the bejesus scared out of you, has over the century become the hallmark of horror fiction. Facing each night the somewhat tedious but potentially deadly onslaught of vampires throwing rocks at your well fortified home, while you sit inside drinking whisky sours and listening to classical music, would wear on one's nerves. Matheson says he got the idea when he saw the Tod Browning Dracula as a child and left the theater thinking how horrible it would be if everyone was a vampire. The first unsuccessful film adaptation of Matheson's novel, and there would be more to follow, was called The Last Man on Earth.

But Matheson's book is also an SF novel, and where you find it in bookstores often has to do with who was doing the shelving or what category the computer ordained when a particular edition was scanned into inventory. Robert Neville spends his time killing vampires, fortifying his house, and reading up on blood pathology. He knows that the plague that has wiped out civilization was not caused the by the infectious bites of bloodsucking ghouls. In studying the victims that surround his house or that he finds comatose during the day, he constructs experiments to separate vampire superstition from scientific facts relevant to his situation. He secures a microscope, learns to use it, studies blood samples from the infected, and locates the bacteria that causes the disease. Although he knows on a practical level it is too late, he hopes to find a cure.

Flashbacks provide the story with narratives of the increasing worldwide panic and Neville's personal loss of his wife and daughter. Matheson's main focus, however, stays on Neville's solitary existence, both its mundanity and moments of exhilaration and panic. Matheson's unadorned prose is tailored to examine the day-to-day or moment-to-moment survival skills of characters in extreme situations. That's what he does in his masterpiece from 1956, The Shrinking Man, and in short stories most people know from their television adaptations: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, William Shatner confronting a gremlin on the wing of a passenger plane; Duel, Stephen Spielberg's TV film of a man pursued by an 18 wheel tracter trailer; and, Prey, Karen Black fighting off that maniacal African devil doll.

Look at Matheson's bibliography and you will find that he has provided many shared cultural moments of anxiety and fright for the better part of the last sixty years. I am Legend was his auspicious beginning.
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