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I Am Legend (SF Masterworks No2)
by Richard Matheson (Millennium, £6.99, 160 pages, paperback; first published 1954; this edition published 21 January 1999.)

Firstly the title. Not I am a Legend. But I Am Legend. That has a mythic charge worth of Borges. Remember his fiction, Borges and I? cover scanWho's writing the book? Richard Matheson or his fictional protagonist, Robert Neville? Or another I - our most precious sense of the self - becoming forgotten, legendary?

Robert Neville as the last living man (ie not infected by a 70s plague) fights off vampires whilst trying to survive a la Robinson Crusoe (boarded up house, freezer full of food and a fine collection of classical music LPs - his desert island discs?). He has a hard time coaxing a frightened dog inside. When it's in, the creature companion dies within a week. A Man Friday - in the form of Ruth, a widow, appears. She turns out to be a moral double agent. Attracted to Neville and his uniqueness as the uncontaminated one, but also employed by the vampires who are mutating into a new species.

I am Legend was first published in 1954. I suppose I ought to have read this book in 1965, when I'd have been old enough (sixteen thereabouts) to appreciate its covert unease about the cold war and American fears of communism. In that context, you could make a fruitful analogy with Siegel's 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But that would be too obviously neat and diminish the power of Matheson's novel. For to read it in August 2000, is still to experience a strong tendency within society for vampirish conformity. Besides Matheson's style is one of timeless, edgy paranoia.

Yet some of the best prose, is the most poignant. Take the moment when Neville is searching the long abandoned LA public library for books on physiology and bacteriology (Neville hopes to discover an antidote for the vampirism). Matheson makes Neville reflect on the stereotype of the spinsterish virginal librarian, who probably tidied up on the day the library shut down.

'He thought about that visionary lady. To die, he thought, never knowing the fierce joy and attendant comfort of a loved one's embrace. To sink into that hideous coma, to sink then into death and, perhaps, return to sterile, awful wanderings. All without knowing what it was to love and be loved.

That was a tragedy more terrible than becoming a vampire.

He shook his head. All right, that's enough, he told himself, you haven't got time for maudlin reveries.'

That's hauntingly insightful. A terrific injection of sympathy by the character for us, the reader. Then beautifully drawn back (less we get too close) by the final sentence as it reveals Neville's sad, lonely determinism. It's passages like this (and there are many) that psychologically bleed out of the book.

Of course, I Am Legend is also a very exciting read. (George Romero was undoubtedly inspired by Matheson.) And there's finely written popular science information here that evokes HG Wells. But what's most impressive is its account of a humorous, semi-existential guy, clinging on to cherish his humanity (and all humanity) in the face of pretty bleak adversity.

Robert Neville is constantly pursued by his living dead, next door neighbour Ben Cortman. He reminds Neville of a malignant Oliver Hardy! Cortman's survived attacks from cars, bullets, knives, water and collapsing buildings. The man's physical size coping with his plight makes Neville laugh. Great emotional release from this Ollie cut of its Stan. Though maybe Cortman is being attacked by a hiding Stan, Neville himself? The absurdly last survivor witnessing his absurd victim, who cheers Neville up!

Two mediocre films of the book have been made, The Last Man On Earth and The Omega Man. There's news of Ridley Scott planning a third version with (God help us!) Arnold Schwarzenneger.

Try to imagine Matheson's original script - not butchered by the producers - with the direction of say Roger Corman (thirty years back, please).

Better still simply read, or re-read, the superb I Am Legend.

Still a classic.

Review by Alan David Price.

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© Alan David Price 26 August 2000