Today I’m happy to welcome Mr. Kaggsy back to the Ramblings with a post on a short novel which is a favourite of his. As usual, he’s chosen something which has also been adapted for more than one movie (he’s more of a film than book man!!) – I hope you’ll find his thoughts interesting and probably I should give a Spoiler Alert as he does discuss the plot in some detail! 😀

Richard Matheson might be less familiar as an author, but his works have been adapted for many screen productions. “I Am Legend” (IAL) is still in print after nearly 70 years, having had many publishings, movie tie-in and Folio editions. However, no hardcover edition appeared until 1970 (US) and 1974 (UK; not shown below as the cover is quite plain). The Matheson name has been seen during many decades on screen, he having nearly a hundred credits for movies and television productions. His writings, including TV and film screenplays, have been in print or used in productions since the 1950s, and his earliest stories and poems were already being published in his childhood years.

Born in New Jersey in 1926, he grew up in Brooklyn and had articles in print from 1950, followed by novels, the third of which was IAL. In the second half of the decade he provided the basis for his first film, from his novel “The (Incredible) Shrinking Man”. Up to his passing, in 2013 in California, he was still active in writing and interviews. I particularly enjoyed his “Bid Time Return” novel, which became a hit movie as “Somewhere in Time” (1980), although the book was more believable and sympathetic. His screenplay “Duel”, about a huge truck menacing a terrified driver, was Steven Spielberg’s first (TV) movie.

IAL was given a cinema adaptation in 1964 as “The Last Man on Earth” which was more of a vehicle for actor Vincent Price. There followed two blockbusters, “The Omega Man” (1971) and “I Am Legend”, with Charlton Heston and Will Smith respectively in the lead. These movies all departed from the original  basis and there have been calls for a film faithful to the original. Matheson’s stories continue to appear as productions, audiobooks and even comics and graphic novels, with talk of a IAL screen ‘prequel’.

Gold Medal, 1954 US; Transworld Publishers US, 1956; Corgi, 1960.

The novel IAL was quite bold for 1954, offering a different take on the timeworn vampire genre. The novel presents the account of Robert Neville, as the apparent sole survivor of a plague which has infected and transformed all other humans. At sub-50,000 words, the book is beyond accepted novella length, but the third person chronicle is all the more taut for that. From the first line, Neville’s fate is already sealed and the opening establishes his plight, a Robinson Crusoe-like setting, but a nightmarish one. The story is more in a scientific form than horror, the ‘enemy’ ranks are not vampires in the traditional sense; what were ordinary, everyday people, became infected by bacteria. They are driven to destroy Neville, cursing him for having ‘pure’ blood, and desperate to be rid of him; he is a constant reminder of the time before they came to be as they are. Contrasting with the traditional creatures from folklore, there is no sense of mythical beings, needing to feed on blood, in Matheson’s novel. Instead the afflicted souls are an embodiment of a bacterial threat from nature.

The opening commences with Neville already having been battling both his nocturnal foe and his own decline into despair and desolation, the first words revealing his weary battle between survival and resignation: “On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.” Thus begins a tense balance between suspense and all-out aggression. Set in the ‘future’ of 1976, Neville faces mobs engaged in wanton destruction, violently tearing down or burning the remnants of the old world. In his fortified and hopefully protected city domain, the lone individual lives with his memories and imagination, playing classical music and relying on alcohol to prevent himself from straying into madness and suicidal thoughts. Starved of human company and simple conversation, he relies on his own deep instincts.

Neville has to check himself to remember that these beings were once like himself, some even known to him in the past. An unexpected organism mutation was neither his fault or theirs, but the deadly strain has seeded hatred within him and his aggressors. Essential defence steps see the isolated man busy during daytime, seeking out vampiric hiding places, clearing areas and strengthening his protections: “It was almost noon. Robert Neville was in his hothouse collecting a basketful of garlic. In the beginning it had made him sick to smell garlic in such quantity his stomach had been in a state of constant turmoil… All afternoon he made stakes.”

Darkness was always the danger time, but dull days could equally be risky: “That’s what was wrong with these cloudy days; you never knew when they were coming.” Mentions of his lost loved ones and his recreations of their imaginary presence reveal the extent of his loneliness, and the transference of blame and hate onto those from whom he has to defend himself. A moment of levity comes with Matheson having his protagonist reading Bram Stoker’s seminal work: “‘The strength of the vampire is that no one will believe in him.’ Thank you, Dr. Van Helsing, he thought, putting down his copy of ‘Dracula’. He sat staring moodily at the bookcase, listening to Brahms’ second piano concerto, a whisky sour in his right hand, a cigarette between his lips. It was true. The book was a hodgepodge of superstitions and soap-opera clichés, but that line was true; no one had believed in them, and how could they fight something they didn’t even believe in?’” Neville’s morose thoughts invade his mind: “At one time, the Dark and Middle Ages, to be succinct, the vampire’s power was great, the fear of him tremendous. He was anathema and still remains anathema. Society hates him.”

Bantam 1964, US; Walker and Company, 1970 US; Berkley 1971, US.

When safe to visit the cemetery and ‘speak’ to his lost loved ones, the burial ground is now untended: “The grass was so high that the weight of it had bent it over and it crunched under his heavy shoes as he walked. There was no sound but that of his shoes and the now senseless singing of birds.” Inwardly he pleads, “Virginia. Take me where you are.” At other times he goes over the pain of losing a child: “In his mind he saw a scene enacted once again. The great fire crackling, roaring yellow, sending its dense and grease-thick clouds into the sky. Kathy’s tiny body in his arms. The man coming up and snatching her away as if he were taking a bundle of rags… Him standing there while pile driver blows of horror drove him down with their impact.”

Neville is well aware that he could lose his mind. “The thought of forty more years of living as he was made him shudder.” At one point he almost philosophically addresses the assailants in the street below him: “They all stood looking up at him with their white faces. He stared back. And suddenly he thought, I’m the abnormal one now… 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.” As the book moves towards its end, the main figure’s bouts of depression and alcoholism engulf him, the bleak future facing him unbearable.

One critic wrote in 2005 that IAL “… 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,” revering “… the supreme majesty of the existential masterpiece I Am Legend…” (Dan Schneider; International Writers Magazine). Matheson was also one of Stephen King’s favourite writers. In an interview Matheson described how “I believe in the ‘supernormal.’ To me there is nothing that goes against nature. If it seems incomprehensible, it’s because we haven’t been able to understand it yet.” Thus although the writer calls the IAL beings vampires, they are not in the gothic tradition.

I have seen all three film versions and agree with others’ interpretations of the story as not being what the screen adaptations delivered. Matheson’s forensic style in the novel has been acclaimed: “… a canonical work in the science fiction genre”. The author’s prose has also been hailed: “… as lean and as efficient as his hero”, with another commentator adding: “… Neville is gradually shown to be the real ‘mutant’. He is the only man left from the world as it was.”

The ending is as stark as the story and setting, confronting the changed world, as Neville takes the ultimate step to face the awful reality and find his peace:

“A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.

I am legend.”

Nelson Doubleday 1980, US; movie poster 1964; movie poster 1971. (The 2007 movie poster is simply a photo of actor Will Smith’s character.)