Friday, February 28, 2014

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Title: I Am Legend
Author: Richard Matheson
Publisher:  Gollancz (2007); originally published in 1954

Thank goodness for my ongoing partnership with Michael! For one, it's super fun and, for two, teaming up with Michael is always recommended. But, also, because without this ongoing series I would be completely out of the book blogging game these days. I suppose it's a quiet period for me and book blogging, but I don't want to give it up so many thanks to Michael for keeping me going during this quiet time. Now, this month's pick was mine and I had no idea this title is considered scifi/horror. My first horror pick! What a surprise. I usually leave horror to Michael. I'm really excited to see what he thought of I Am Legend.
For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of I Am Legend

I just checked the back cover for spelling of the protagonist's name and now the blurb is all I can think of so I'm just going to quote the backcopy for a synopsis: "Robert Neville may well be the only survivor of an incurable plague that has mutated every other man, woman and child into bloodthirsty, nocturnal creatures* who are determined to destroy him. By day he scavenges for food and supplies, desperate to find any other survivors who might be out there. But all the while the infected lurk in the shadows, watching his every move, waiting for him to make a mistake..."

*not sure why the word vampires isn't used here because the creatures straight up are vampires and vamps are all the rage right now so why not capitalize??

I chose this title because of my continued interest in the film (despite that unfortunate ending) and I admit that my view of this story is heavily influenced by the film. So much so that I think my comparisons between the two depictions started at about page three and never let up. I'm sorry to say, the novella did not do so well in those comparisons. (It's been not quite three years since we queued up another Matheson title and I'm wondering if he's just not the author for me.)

Film Neville is so vastly superior to Novella Neville (ha! I like that, Novella Neville) that I was never able to take NovNev seriously as a survivor. Exhibit A is in the first few sentences when we learn that he can't be bothered to calculate sunset! The creatures that come out at night WILL KILL HIM and yet he can't be bothered to calculate sunset?? "On those cloudy days... sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back. That was why he chose to stay near the house on those days."  Hey, I won't blame ya for sticking close to your safe zone but, seriously? I'm supposed to believe you are possibly the only survivor of a heinous plague and you can't be bothered to do a simple calculation that might save your life? Uh, yeah, you lost me.

Ok, so, NovNev lost me but there's no reason Matheson couldn't keep this story moving in such a way that I could mostly ignore the ridiculous aspects of NovNev's character (necrophilia, much?) except he doesn't quite have the follow-through that I require of a writer. This title has a great set-up (and the end is friggin' awesome but I'm not gonna ruin that for anyone because, if you manage to slog your way through, you should at least be rewarded with the cool ending) but the writing undercuts it constantly. For instance, its internal chronology is not chronological. I thought I was messing it up due to skimming but when I checked over dates and the description of passing months/years it doesn't add up. This shit matters because you're building a world for me to believe in. You're telling me this character has changed dramatically between Time Zero, Time + Six Months, and Time + Two Years. If you get the chronology wrong it's more than just irritating, it undermines the development of the character in response to his experiences. Worse, it poofs some experiences right out of existence.

"Deep in his body, the knotting heat began again, and he pressed his lips together until they were white. He knew the feeling well and it enraged him that he couldn't combat it." The feeling and it are horniness for women he considers dead. (Um, yuck!) When you start working out the timeline (as best as one ever can in this title) he's squirming around with his bitter enraged horniness only six months after Plague Problems. I understand that some folks really need it bad but I'd think his self-professed revulsion at the Undead outside his door (and some, shall we say, Self Care) would at least keep the Horny Toads at bay for 6 months! His constant anger at "lewdly" posing (undead) women never rings very true and around the halfway mark this bit is thrown at the reader: "Sex was fast losing its meaning without the endless prodding of mass hypnosis." Mass hypnosis was responsible for his initial, uncontrollable attraction to undead women? He goes on to say he had mostly just tried to adjust to his belief "that he was actually the only one left in the world" and, again, I have to say that totally undermines why we spent the first quarter of the book hearing him whine on about his unwanted attraction to almost any adult female body he encountered.

Continuing in my quest to get into a cool story, I tried to focus on the vampires. There are a couple types (I guess) and those types are even explained but I was never able to really get the distinction. It's implied that some of the infected are genuine vampires and some are psychological vampires. I actually thought that was a clever way to justify the idiot vampires that hung around Neville's house every damn night but even this explanation was inconsistently applied.

The final straw comes when Neville encounters another survivor. BEGIN SPOILER (highlight if interested): This is years after the initial infection so anyone who is still out and about at this point knows what the fuck is up. I'll admit that Neville is not the sharpest tool in the box but he has some grip on what it takes to survive. If you encounter a survivor who "wore a wrinkled and dirty white dress" and the "skirt of her dress whipped against the grass, holding her back" that survivor is obviously not to be trusted because nobody who could live in this new world would be stupid enough to wear such useless, unsurviving clothes! END SPOILER. Come on, NovNev, even you can't be this dumb. Ugh!

Ugh, ugh, UGH!!!!

When it comes down to it, this novella is a good idea with a cool ending but not much else. My suggestion is to stick with the movie because it smartly smartens Neville up, keeps and/or improves the best elements of the story, and is quite a good time. I know, I know, the ending... I'll have more to say regarding the film's ending over at the film review. Don't forget to check out Michael's post.

Note: While it's coming clear to me that perhaps Matheson and I don't mesh well, he's certainly beloved of many and I wanted to link this article published at the time of his death.

rating: 2 of 5 stars

Coming up next:

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco


  1. Always great to read your book reviews, Rachel. Especially since we come at them from differing perspectives, given our age differences (as well as gender, and if we did the film or the book first). I look at I Am Legend as more of a sci-fi, rather than horror, novella, but both aspects are present. You make good points as to why the material didn’t work for you. I read this sometime during the 70s, after seeing the first two adaptations, The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man. And I thought it startling, in good way.

    Probably because it was the 70s, and this was written in 1954, the premise intrigued me very much. And likely Neville’s horniness, given the time then (looking back) was quaint in a way that didn’t bother me. In fact, I thought given its 50s pedigree made it a tad daring. But the necro, even Neville commented on it, was a bit much. Yet, vampirism’s own sexual undertow, with the dead, when you think on it, is always there. Just dressed up.

    The first person narrative, as well, added to Matheson’s psychological tenets of the tale. A madness with the whole situation. Neville's neighbor, Ben Cortman as his nemesis, was strangely the one final trace left of his former life. What happens in the end involving that connection gave it a poignant realization to NovNev (a great moniker, btw). Since my reading of I Am Legend occurred way before Will Smith’s version showed up is probably the reason I not as critical to the things that bothered you. The demise of Neville’s wife in the novel I did miss, but the 2007 film made up for it in other ways.

    I am glad we did this. Of course, I like Matheson’s writing for the most part. Maybe come October, his more horror style will claim you ;-). Many thanks, Rachel!

  2. As always, so many excellent points here, Michael. I also find our differing perspectives to be one of the most interesting aspects to come out of our reviews. I certainly think one of the biggest reasons for it is which medium did we encounter first and when. It can make a huge difference.

    I've always thought of I Am Legend as scifi as well but I kept seeing it as scifi/horror. Are you trying to say I didn't sneak a horror pick in? ha!

    I completely agree with your assessment of how breakthrough this probably was when it was published. I'd love to see a review from the 50s on this because so many of the its characteristics (Neville's sexuality, vampirism, disease creates monsters, antibiotics) were absolutely at the front edge of scifi writing. We see them as rather mundane now but I can't imagine that's how they were seen when it was first published. These aspects of the novella, plus the awesome premise, made it doubly disappointing to me that the writing felt so lazy.

    Great note on the first person narrative. I'd say it's essential here to the resultant 'i am legend' theme. I think the only third person narrative that would work would be someone (like one of the vampires??) recounting the story specifically keeping the 'i am legend' bit undercover.

    In this review, I was diligent in not including any sciencey critiques but I feel I must point out that you have to maintain/house animals to make antibiotics and it was just another undercutting of survival to not have looked up this very basic thing (I'm putting that on Matheson though rather than NovNev:).

    We'll see how I get on in October. Can Matheson convert this doubter? I just don't know!

    Thanks right back at ya!

  3. I don't remember the writing on this as being problematic, but I was 14 when I last read it in 1972. I skipped the spoiler because almost all of my memory of the story comes from the cinema versions and I ought to be surprised if I do go back and read this again. I need to dig through more of your older posts, I like the concept of this project and you have some nice titles listed. Thanks Rachel for your time and effort on this when you did not really care for it.

  4. Hi Richard! Thanks for stopping by and for your thoughtful comment. I, too, would have skipped spoilers on an old title I might revisit. If you do read it again, I'd sure love to hear your thoughts. And I hope you do sift through some of our older posts. I've had a great time doing these with Michael and I think we've looked at some really interesting stories. Cheers, Rachel