Friday, 5 April 2013

Richard Matheson- I Am Legend

I Am Legend
Victor Gollancz
Richard Matheson
1954

“Full circle. A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend.”

It always kind of irks me a little when people refer to the details of a story after only seeing the cinematic adaptation, like the other day when my sister asked me if I'd heard of the film War of the Worlds and I almost through her out of the window. The thing is that it's one of those irritations which is just actually a personal affectation to make myself look and feel like more of a literary snob, and in reality we're all the same and we all do it. I first saw the Will Smith sci-fi horror vehicle I Am Legend a few years ago, and although it's not a particularly brilliant film it did stick in my memory. In the years since, as I grow old and wizened, I learned a little more about fan disapproval of the film, specifically due to it's dovetailing from the original story. Curious to see what the fuss was about, I picked up the book.

Richard Matheson's bibliography is totally alien to me aside from this book, which stands out as the definitive note of his writing career as an individual piece of sci-fi/horror in the same way that The Day of the Triffids was for John Wyndham, or Flowers for Algernon for Daniel Keyes (two of my favourite science fiction novels). Prior to reading it I really had no idea of the influence it had on modern things I enjoy, which is probably my brain subliminally filling it alongside the 2007 film version as merely throw-away entertainment. The modern things I enjoy, by the way, are zombies.

Starring Will Smith.
I Am Legend is a short book, more of a novella, and certainly isn't in the same vein as the action-packed Hollywood version. Instead Matheson uses the elements he chooses to pluck from the horror genre to give an intense character study of a man in the strangest of circumstances, using the structure of events to move him to a climactic realisation that puts the whole book, including its title, into a final philosophical context. In this aspect Matheson's pacing and development is masterful; he introduces the reader to the life of Robert Neville, possibly the last human being left alive and unaffected by the vampiric plague that's swept the world- yes, I did say zombies but they're kind of like a cross between vampires and zombies.

 It's a lonely, harrowing story. Neville's day to day survival is somewhat procedural; he's very well-prepared, intelligent, and safe, having isolated himself in an impenetrable home at night while free to wonder the world during the day. Naturally events don't remain so simple and under control, and it's at the introduction of third parties that the differences between the book and the film really stand out, literally, symbolically and very much thematically. Like every other film starring Will Smith ever, the focus there is on hope and success, but that was a large departure from the original source. I can certainly understand devout fans of the book not enjoying the changes at all, but then a direct adaptation would not have worked, at least not for mainstream audiences.

Ultimately I think it's a fact that I Am Legend is a far greater novel than it was a film. I think the quality of its inspiration on the post-apocalyptic strand of the horror novel cannot be understated, although the quality of the novel and its prose itself doesn't quite match up to that legacy. I certainly recommend it to any fan of horror as both an genre innovator and a good, brief read on its own merits.