::Literate Blather::
Sunday, November 25, 2007
Literary Criticism: Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend"

Summary: A fast-moving, deadly plague strikes humanity killing everything in its path. The disease ultimately mutates corpses into vampires that crave the flesh of the living. Unfortunately for the vampires, the only human survivor appears to be Robert Neville. Neville transforms his home into a fortress as he battles vampires and struggles to find food, water, and ammunition. Years later, Neville finally meets another human being – a woman named Ruth. But Ruth has a horrible secret. She is one of a group of people that have found a way to treat the plague so that it doesn’t kill them. These survivors are still vampires – but are alive. They are threatened by Neville and end up hunting him down. Caught by the “new” humans, Neville realizes that he will soon become a legend – just as vampires were legends to humans before the plague.

Analysis: Robert Matheson doesn’t put pen to paper much anymore. He can be forgiven. After all, Matheson is 81 years old. He’s become a living legend – a masterful author of science fiction and horror (Stephen King lists Matheson as one of his inspirations). He’s also a screenwriter that has been lucky enough to turn his own novels and short stories into films and TV programs (Matheson wrote for the “Twilight Zone” and “The Night Stalker”).

“I Am Legend” will soon be a Hollywood blockbuster starring Will Smith (it will be the third time the story has become a movie). As a result, “I Am Legend” is one of Matheson’s most famous stories, but it isn’t one of his best. “Duel,” “Hell House,” and “The Incredible Shrinking Man” continue to vie for that title.

“I Am Legend” has several problems – one of them being that today’s readers are experiencing a vampire hangover. Vampire fiction has become its own genre of horror fiction (Amazon.com has more than 1,400 titles under vampire fiction – from the graphic novel “30 Days of Night” to Elizabeth Kostova’s “The Historian”).

None of this is Matheson’s fault, of course. He wrote “I Am Legend” in 1954 (when Anne Rice was 13 years old). At one time “I Am Legend” might have put a fresh face on vampire fiction – but no longer.

Unfortunately, that’s not the only problem with the novella. There are two other problems: scariness and the main character.

Matheson approaches “I Am Legend” like it is a scientific equation that needs solving. His main character, Robert Neville, spends an inordinate amount of time contemplating the true nature of the disease. He experiments on the vampires trying to discover how to cure it.

Some of this is interesting, but as a result we get less action. Neville, after all, is the sole survivor of a plague. Readers only get brief glimpses of the outside world, but most of the action takes place inside Neville’s head or inside his compound like house.

It’s a missed opportunity to explore a new world. As I read the novella, I wanted more information about Neville’s day-to-day existence. Where does he get his food? How does he keep his water running? What does he do during his spare time? Does he read? Does he play games? What amuses him?

None of these questions are answered. I also wanted more physical confrontations between Neville and the vampires (especially those who gather outside his house every evening). Where are the epic fights? We get to hear about some of them, but most take place in the past. We experience them as Neville thinks about them.

This lack of action means few chills. The scariest part of the book (again in the past) is when Neville buries his wife, Virginia, and then she comes home for a visit:

“Then his breath was snuffed. Someone was mumbling on the porch, muttering words he couldn’t hear. He braced himself; then, with a lunge, he jerked open the door and let the moonlight in.

He couldn’t even scream. He just stood rooted to the spot, staring dumbly at Virginia.

“Rob… ert,” she said.”

Robert Neville is a problem. Matheson’s main character spends too much time feeling sorry for himself – and drowning his sorrows in liquor. He’s a driven man, but one that isn’t very curious about his new world. He’s in denial – to the point of not observing the new reality developing around him.

This disengagement fails to keep the reader engage in the story. We want action! Horror! Chills and thrills! “I Am Legend” is too self-contained, too cerebral for its own good.

Matheson deserves to be read. He’s an excellent writer of genre fiction, but “I Am Legend” isn’t up to his own standards. Hopefully, the new movie will be better.

Read our literary criticism of Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

Read our literary criticism of Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
"Robert Matheson doesn’t put pen to paper much anymore"

no offense, but last time I checked it was Richard Matheson, and he was an amazing writer...

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Why would you read a book only for action and horror, and not for the underlying messages behind it? That's inane.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
This is hardly literary criticism. You didn't bother to analyze anything. You treated the book like an action flick rather than an engrossing novel.

Blogger Whitesuperman26 said...
The book wasn't written to be scary! By the way, all of those questions you asked were actually answered within the book. "I AM LEGEND" is not a book about vampires. Sure, it has vampires in it, but the true conflict is not the external one between Neville and the Vampires, it is the one within Neville, where he struggles with alcoholism, depression, and thoughts of suicide. This is hands down the greatest story I have ever read, and its horror was not blatant "BOO!" horror, it had the "imagine yourself in this situation, and how would you feel?" horror, which really makes the reader a part of the story, instead of just an observer. This review totally missed everything that was great about this book, and it seemed too much like the author was trying to compare this novella to Twilight or Interview with a Vampire.

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