Harold Ogle's Reviews > I Am Legend and Other Stories

I Am Legend and Other Stories by Richard Matheson
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's review
Feb 08, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: audiobooks, horror, post-apocalypse, classics
Recommended for: stephen king fans, zombie fans, survival horror fans
Read from February 08 to 15, 2012

The unabridged audiobook of the novella and short stories. The review must therefore be two parts: review of the audio, and review of the stories.

Two actors split the reading: one reads the novella "I am Legend" and the other reads all the other stories. The audio is crisp throughout. The first reader is competent with a vocal quality that really conveys the bleak despair and alcoholic self-deception of the story. The second reader is very dramatic and skilled with a variety of humorous voices (W.C. Fields, Woody Allen, etc) but has a strong lisp and occasionally, jarringly mispronounces words. Additionally, his delivery is sometimes too ridiculous, sounding like a cross between Albert Brooks and Droopy Dog. You'll notice that I don't mention the names of either of the actors; this is because neither actor is credited separately at any point in the liner materials or on the recordings themselves, so an audience unfamiliar with either of them will not be able to tell which is which. Still, I really enjoyed the audiobook, in large part because the stories are well realized.

"I am Legend" is noteworthy for a number of reasons. As with many of the stories contained in this collection, Matheson actually created fiction subgenres with this one. Both apocalyptic plague stories and survival horror stories can trace their lineage directly to "I am Legend," the first of them all. This means that, without "I am Legend," Stephen King would never have written The Stand or The Cell, Walter Jon Williams would never have written The Rift, there would be no "Resident Evil" video game and film franchise, no "Walking Dead" (comics or TV series), no "Night of the Living Dead," no "Thriller," no "The Quiet Earth," no "Plants vs. Zombies." Can you imagine a world without zombies in pop culture? We owe it all to "I am Legend."

Parts of "I am Legend" are frustrating, but these are, I believe, largely because it was written in a time that predates zombies and post-apocalyptic survival stories being household concepts. As a reader now, I was astonished at how slow protagonist Robert Neville is understanding things. On the flip side, there are a number of key concepts that Matheson glosses over which should have received more attention in the story (such as the difference between infected living and the undead, or why the neighbor, Ben Cortman, doesn't use tools to dig Neville out of his house). Both extremes were frustrating.

The book is also interesting for its picture of life in the 50s...for even though the events of the book take place in the 70s, like Jacob Singer in "Jacob's Ladder", Matheson is unable and/or uninterested in imagining a world any different from 1954. So you have characters calling themselves by their last names - Neville is Robert's last name, but it's all he calls himself, playing records on a turntable hooked up to loudspeakers to drown out the voices of the dead because headphones aren't in common use, watching film reels on a projector because TV wasn't even common then, wearing a watch that needs to be wound and driving a car without a clock.

As a survival horror story, it doesn't work very well. The enemies are stupid (again, why don't they just burn his house, or chop down his door?), but so is Neville and Matheson lets him be stupid. One example: the man continues to drive his car for years, even though there are no petroleum refineries in operation and no way to preserve the existing gasoline so that it would continue to work. But in a different sense, that is the strength of the story. That is to say that where "I am Legend" really shines is in the character development; Robert Neville is superbly flawed. He's an alcoholic in complete denial, filled with rage, lust, depression, and, most tellingly, pride. He manages to come up with a terrible routine for survival without making any attempt at any point in the story to see if there are survivors anywhere else in the world. It's a given that he accepts without hesitation that he is the Last Man on Earth, but while convinced of this, he doesn't move out of his indefensible house in the LA suburbs. He is in a rut, while telling himself that he's getting better and learning to cope more, he is still stuck in that rut. He comes up with an incredibly convoluted attempt to scientifically explain all the phenomena he's observed with the undead, but even so he dismisses items he can't explain as superstition or otherwise invalid. Some of the book evokes guffaws of disbelief as a result. But it all is in keeping with his fundamental flaws, and so all the more impressive that he is able to con himself so completely. The ending is a nice touch, and finally provides meaning to the title of the book.

The rest of the stories in the collection are also good, though many of them will also feel very familiar. They, too, clearly provided inspiration to many other, more familiar stories. Stephen King clearly based a lot of The Shining on Matheson's "Mad House," and the "Child's Play" series of films owes a great deal to "Prey," as does any story about a doll coming to homicidal life. As with "I am Legend," most of the rest of the characters in Matheson's stories in this collection are addicts with powerful dependencies. I particularly enjoyed "Witch War," not only because it may have influenced stories of psychics from "Scanners" to "Cosmo Police Justy" and "Akira," but because of the interesting presentation: the story is told as a poem presenting brief images of the events like sensory snapshots. "Prey" was very well-crafted, though as with any story featuring a woman sobbing and running away from her murderous attacker, I found it frustrating that she didn't do more to defend herself.

One note about the idiosyncrasies of Matheson: in nearly all of the stories, he mentions one or more characters' necks or throats "making a clicking sound," usually as they swallow. It happens so frequently that you could think of it as an authorial flourish, or signature phrase. That said, it bothered me, as I don't know what he means by it. Are the people in his stories all secretly insects?

Overall, I enjoyed this collection and recommend it if you are looking for a good audiobook or are interested in reading these seminal stories.

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