He was legend: why Richard Matheson’s vampire novel was a masterpiece of literature
I remember asking a friend if I could borrow their copy of I Am Legend when I saw it on their bookshelf. I had always heard that the book was good, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what I was about to read. I devoured it, and began to seek out other work by Richard Matheson. In the horror and science fiction genre, Matheson’s name is held in the highest regard. His work is that good.
I Am Legend is a deeply personal look at one man trying to survive a world filled with vampires, and that survival meant fighting depression, loneliness, and even sexual urges as much as the monsters that call to him, asking him to leave his house and join them.
It’s one of the few horror novels where a character isn’t content to just sit back and react to what’s going on. Neville spends time at the library, researching diseases of the blood. He methodically takes care of his home and his defenses. He eats, he listens to music, and he drinks.
Neville stubbornly carves out a life in the most trying of circumstances. The story is human, and it demands that we look inside and ask how well we’d do in the same situation. It’s a vampire story, but you can see the blueprint for the zombie obsession that’s currently gripping our country.
Neville also fights back, venturing into the world during the day and killing as many vampires as he can while they sleep. It’s a thankless, most likely futile task, but it’s better than giving up. I Am Legend is a character study in determination and desperation. If you haven’t read it, you now have something to do with your weekend.
Anyone who writes current horror is standing on Matheson’s shoulders, and his work is utterly lacking the detached sexuality of modern vampire stories, or the romance and beauty that often infects these subjects.
Matheson explored a world where people sweat, and had human needs and weaknesses. Neville spends hours every day on upkeep around his house, and the descriptions of his work are unsentimental and detailed.
While many vampire stories introduce the idea that the undead are terrified of the cross, Neville doesn’t take that fact at face value. He finds a vampire he knows to be Jewish, and uses the Talmud to see if it has the same effect. Matheson may have written the first modern hero who treated “supernatural” creatures as if they existed in an episode of Mythbusters.
The ending is well known, and of course the title is something of a spoiler in itself, but I won’t discuss it in case you have yet to read the book, and are inspired to due to this post. It’s not a twist. It’s not designed to shock you, or to revel in being clever. It simply makes sense, and adds to the growing dread that filled everything that came before.
I Am Legend is a masterpiece not of horror, but of literature. It’s a wonderful piece of writing, and Matheson’s career is filled with similar highlights. He wrote the similarly human Button, Button as well as the infamous “Nightmare at 20,000 feet” episode of The Twilight Zone. He wrote many books that were made into films, including A Stir of Echoes, and What Dreams May Come, but the work was always better on the page. Duel gave a young director named Steven Spielberg the inspiration to try his hand at the sort of tense, real-world scares that would later be used to such grand effect in Jaws.
Richard Matheson passed away at the age of 87 this week, and he died in his home, of natural causes. In his honor, think about picking up a book tonight, uutting on some good music, and maybe pouring yourself a drink. If you hear a pounding on your door, and the sounds of the dead asking you to come outside, to join them? Take a sip, turn the page, and tell them not tonight, my friends. Not tonight.