Sunday, 30 January 2011

4/111 - I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

It’s taken me longer to read this one than it should have, partly because I’ve been a bit lazy with it, and also because I’ve enjoyed it so much I kind of didn’t want it to end. I bought this book a couple of years ago when I was at uni, I think again to fill in the missing book in a 3 for 2 offer somewhere.

The main reason I have put off reading this book for so long is that I’ve already seen the film and didn’t like it much. I saw it on my 22nd birthday, not realising that not only would I not enjoy it much, but that it was also a pretty depressing film. I think that because it had Will Smith in it, it would be more light-hearted and action-y, despite the whole apocalypse thing going on. 

So, I approached this book with a fair amount of trepidation, not expecting to enjoy it that much.

I was wrong.

I was totally blown away by how good it is. I’m pretty cool with sci-fi and fantasy anyway, though I don’t tend to read that much of it, mostly just Stephen King, and a lot of that is not sci-fi/fantasy-based. (Incidentally, Stephen King writes the introduction to this edition of I Am Legend, and explains the debt he owes to writers like Richard Matheson for helping to revive the horror genre and paving the way for Stephen King.)

Just to outline the plot briefly: Robert Neville is the las man left on earth after a plague has wiped out everyone else. But instead of merely killing them, it turns them into vampires. He spends his days killing them and his nights in drunken despair. The first thing which startled me into love was the writing style. It’s fantastic, and concise and so, so modern. It flows so well, which is one of the things I love about Stephen King’s writing. It wasn’t until I remarked upon this and turned to the front to see what date it had first been published that I got a real shock.


I think I knew that this wasn’t a contemporary novel, but I always kind of assumed it had been written in the 70s or the 80s, but the 50s?! My awe immediately doubled, because not only was the book good in its own right, but it was also incredibly ahead of its time. So it seems to me, anyway. It’s possible that I just haven’t read enough 1950s horror novels.

Another large area of enjoyment for me was how different it played out compared with the film. There were some good parts to the film – the enormous cityscapes devoid of people were incredible, and a difficult thing to imagine. Will Smith also did a decent job, and there are a few creepy moments with him talking to mannequins, but I wish there had been more of that darker stuff. The main downfall of the film is the way they changed the plot so much. It was pretty much a different story.

The movie Robert Neville lives alone with his dog, and seems to cope fairly well. He hides himself from the vampires, catches them by day and experiments on them. The movie vampires are savage beasts with no intellect. Neville just kind of repeats this process until a woman and a boy stumble into his life, and they bring all kinds of stupid trouble with them, and the ending with Neville sacrificing himself and the woman and boy taking the ‘cure’ to a new civilisation kind of feels like a cop-out.

The book Robert Neville also lives alone, but with no dog. He is a much, much darker character. He drinks heavily and is haunted by the loss of his wife and daughter, and his wife’s eventual reanimation as a vampire. He drinks heavily and flies into rages easily. He kills methodically each day. He is obsessed with finding out what causes the vampirism. He is repulsed by the vampires, and yet also finds himself drawn to the female vampires sexually.

The main huge difference is with the vampires themselves. In the film, they’re not supposed to have any intelligence and more akin to animals, but in the book we see that they can at least speak (some of them, anyway). It also turns out that some of them are able to overcome the vampirism (which is caused by a germ) and re-build their society. Their main problem is that Neville is killing them off. In their eyes, he is the villain.

All in all, this book was an unexpected delight. Out of everything I’ve read so far, I think this will influence my future reading choices the most – I will most definitely be reading some more Richard Matheson in the future.

Next is: Fup by Jim Dodge.

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