I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson


OK, I\'m sufficiently creeped out. You?After watching the mostly OK until it gets unbelievably gawdawful Will Smith movie and reading about the many people upset by the unfaithful celluloid adaptation, I decided to check out the source material for myself. Needless to say, fans of the book have quite a case for hating the Fresh Prince’s little flick as the only things the two have in common are the title, the main character’s name, and Robert Neville’s efforts to cure a disease. Of course, the diseases are different, but that’s beside the point.

I should begin by admitting a bit of ignorance that ended up coloring the way I viewed this story. You see, I thought it was a novel when I purchased the book from a local Borders. Despite looking at the table of contents at the begining, I had no idea the titular story was a novella and that the rest of the pages were filled up with short stories. I was pretty surprised when the wheels are set in motion for Neville to meet his fate, simply because I thought there were over 100 pages of story left to go. Once I realized otherwise, I think I came to appreciate the story a bit more, if only because you don’t see novellas published much these days.

But on to the story itself, and not my obliviousness to certain context clues. It was fine, I guess. I knew it was a vampire story going in so that didn’t effect my enjoyment of the tale. I suppose a lot of this would’ve felt revolutionary 54 years ago when it was first published, but in today’s post Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and (to a lesser extent) Blade world it feels average at best. The joy in reading this came from recognizing just how many authors/screenwriters/filmmakers Matheson has influenced.

To save money, I bought this ugly thing.Unfortunately, Matheson’s writing is serviceable at its peak and annoyingly stilted at its nadir. Neville’s throat moves way more than any normal man’s should, and I think that’s how Matheson thinks people show emotion. I stood in front of a mirror for a few minutes trying to make my throat convey depression or anger, but all I saw was a dude swallowing a lot. It doesn’t help that Neville isn’t the most sympathetic of protagonists, either. Sure, his situation sucks worse than any situation in the history of the world, but when we meet him he’s been living like that for several months. By that time he should’ve quit his bitching already.

In the end, I felt for Neville despite how unlikable I found him to be. Matheson gives us enough of a picture of his life that we can’t help but want him to live. When you put yourself in his position, as any responsible reader should do, it’s easy to see how important making friends with a dog would be or how odd it would be to hear the sound of your own voice after not speaking for weeks at a time. While I can see why so many people enjoyed Matheson’s work and hated seeing it mishandled so poorly, I can’t count myself among those who care all that much. Maybe if I was born 50 years earlier.

A quick note about the short stories: They range from surprisingly decent to so bad I was mad at my eyeballs for showing me such drivel. There’s a quote on the back cover from Stephen King that proclaims, “Books like I Am Legend were an inspiration to me.” Having read most of the King canon, I can certainly see that’s true. Sadly, King is a much more talented writer than Matheson and the comparison goes badly for the latter. There are certainly some good ideas in those short pieces, but very few of them live up to the promise of their premise.


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