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Bloodlines: Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, Dracula And Other Vampire Tales

by Richard Matheson

(Gauntlet Press, hardcover, 520 pages, January 2007; ISBN: 1887368884.)

Review by William P Simmons

cover scanJust in time for Halloween, the darkest night of the year, comes stories of transformation and redemption, evil and compassion, all translated through the imaginative lens and emotional prism of one of the genre's most respected talents. Responsible for dragging supernatural horror into the modern era, replacing moldy vaults with living rooms, Richard Matheson invested far-flung superstitions from tradition with psychological accuracy and believability. Not content to simply scare or shock (both of which he accomplishes very well), Matheson felt the need to explore the byways of the human condition within minimally told nightmares, uncovering nuances of hurtful truth in tales of possession, haunting and ever-struggling humanity.

Most importantly, his characters -- average folks forced into confrontations with not only the uncanny but the selfish designs of other humans -- are recognizable enough to offer us catharsis. As his everymen face, triumph over, or (as is often the case) lose to the forces of darkness, readers experience that purging shame, anger, sorrow and tragedy so often encountered in Greek tragedy. Nowhere is this most emphasized, and no where is Matheson's versatility better evidenced, than in his wonderfully inventive, emotionally intense fables of vampirism. Weighing in at 500+ pages, Bloodlines is both a generous collection of fine dark fantasy fiction and a studious attempt to critically assess the author's approach to the vampire in fiction and film. In this the volume succeeds admirably well, celebrating various incarnations of the undead with fiction, screenplays, critical analysis, and around 20 pages of photos. In addition, the text records Matheson's ability to address social issues and personal conflicts within the context of a well worn symbol.

An apocalyptic drama of 'the outsider' and society as devouring agent of conformity, the novel I Am Legend means different things to different readers. Within its economical, thrilling plot of the last man on earth hunting (and being hunted by) vampires, this revolutionary work emphasized the struggle of the individual against the many, going on to influence George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead and countless inferior imitations. While the greatest pleasure the novel offers is a unique scientific suggestion of an illness shadowed by supernal folklore and realistic, emotionally engaging characters, of equal importance is Matheson's ability to suggest how very easily the norm may become strange, the culture hero the demonized 'outsider.' In his hero, the last man on Earth, we slowly see an alien emerge if seen from the perspective of the moral majority, in this case vampires. While we are encouraged to empathize with his desperate plight, rooting for his survival, we're also made well aware that this man, to the majority, is the new breed of monster. This philosophically bold context lends power and controversy to the novel even today, as we are asked to ponder who is the monster and who the victim, or if there is indeed any difference between the two outside the realm of subjectivity. Gauntlet accompanies the uncensored version of this minimalist written, thematically rich mixture of apocalyptic nightmare and spiritual tragedy with the I Am Legend screenplay. Besides allowing for a comparison between the narrative and the script, this rare document shows how Matheson envisioned the screen version of his story. A lively, troubling, emotionally challenging read, one laments the fact that this version was never made, its chances destroyed by British censors, replaced instead by two lackluster attempts which offer none of Matheson's original pathos.

After reinventing the ghost story and giving a face-lift to speculative fiction, finding as much wonder and terror in the human psyche as in more outre elements of the supernatural, it was only logical that Matheson should tackle Bram Stocker's Dracula, one of the most influential (if not the first) vampire novels to thrill readers. The results are shared in both Matheson's 'Screen Treatment' and final 'Script' of Dracula. There are substantial differences between the story flow of the treatment and finished script, the transition between narrative-like plot outline and finished speaking screenplay intriguing to track. In both we find Matheson trying to inject the original story with a bit more reserve and plausibility, with mixed results. The screenplay treats the subject seriously and with respect, and focuses on the dramatic relationships between characters and the internal conflict of Dracula more than many subsequent film adaptations. Later produced and directed by the late Dan Curtis, who injected a deliciously dark atmosphere into Matheson's story structure, Dracula was produced minus one whole hour of the planned shooting script. Therefore fans of the film will note several differences between the script and the finished film, including more elaborate characterizations. As with other Matheson script collections from Gauntlet, this edition is oversized (8 ½ x 11), and Matheson's script is offered just as he typed it, including handwritten corrections.

Proposing to document all of Matheson's vampire imaginings, Gauntlet follows I am Legend and Dracula with three short stories that each explore the realm of the undead with different thematic depth and attitude. "Blood Sun" (1951) the first, pokes satiric fun at the vampire legend while studying the transformative desires of a young boy looking for a father-figure. Both "The Funeral" (1955) and "No Such Thing As A Vampire" (1959) maintain this camp sensibility while injecting plots of mistrust and doubt with a sharper degree of malice. Enjoyable in their own right, and considered by many to be classics of genre, these shorts lack the archetypal power, social relevance, and depth of Matheson's novels. Nor are they comparable with the best of Matheson's short work. Regardless, they are a welcome addition, as is the amount of scholarly criticism and in-depth analysis applied by editor Mark Dawidziak, who weighs in on Matheson's evolving style and treatment of his subject in "Preface: Tracing the Bloodlines" and "Richard the Writer, Vlad the Impaler, and Dracula the Script." Photos from I Am Legend, Dracula, The Funeral, and No Such Thing as a Vampire are enjoyable supplements. Finally, appreciations from Ray Bradbury, Rockne S. O'Bannon, John Carpenter, Steve Niles, and others round out this rich, carefully researched collection.

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