Monday, December 15, 2008

#26 - "I am Legend" by Richard Matheson

I recently watched Will Smith’s version of I am Legend, which made me curious enough about the original story to consider expanding my reading to the horror genre. Whether movies or books, horror is probably my least favorite. The only horror movie I’ve seen in the last five years was Shaun of the Dead, and I’m not even sure if that one counts. But I’ve been reading so many books lately, it’s a good excuse to branch out and read some things I wouldn’t otherwise.

Like most of my reading material, I picked up I am Legend at the library. Fortunately the copy I found had I am Legend as well as ten other short stories written by Richard Matheson. This was fortunate because I am Legend has only 170 pages, and even though I don’t mind flouting the reading contest rules when appropriate, I don’t want to do it for every book I read. So, the ten other short stories added another 150 pages to the book, making it more than adequate in length.

I’ll start with the title story and reason for reading this book in the first place, I am Legend (1954). Robert Neville is alone in the world, having survived an epidemic that swept the earth, killing people and turning them into vampire creatures. The creatures cannot stand the sun and go into a coma-like state during the day, but at night they come and attack his embattled house. Robert Neville’s life consists of the monotonous tasks of daily survival, constant loneliness and despair, killing as many vampires and diseased individuals as he can, as well as learning as much as possible about what’s happened to everyone.

Despite my general aversion to horror stories, I enjoyed reading I am Legend. Neville’s daily survival is interesting, and Matheson slowly leaks out information about Neville, his past, his present, and the specifics about the vampires so that the book often reads like a mystery. I also liked comparing the book and the movie. The movie changed the location to NYC, changed the cause of the disease, and changed some of the aspects of the disease for story purposes. Most of these changes, I think, made for a better movie. Seeing Robert Neville tearing through a deserted and lonely Times Square is much more visually captivating—horrific C.G. deer notwithstanding—than seeing him wander around a nondescript suburb. The movie also captured Neville’s loneliness and solitude quite well, managing to have the same feeling of the book, without being tied down to all the particulars. The main difference between the two is the ending. The book’s ending fits the story perfectly and ironically, making the entire story meaningful and more memorable, but the movie strays too far from the book for its last chapter and suffers by comparison. And I say this after also having seen the alternate end on DVD. Of course, now that I’ve seen both, I’m having a hard time remembering which was the “original” movie ending, but I prefer to selectively remember only the first 2/3 of the movie anyway.

I was not as impressed by the ten other short stories included in this book. The problem might again have been the genre, but I did not find them nearly as absorbing or thoughtful as the main story. I guess they were all generally well-written and the characters were often interesting enough that they weren’t painful to read about, but I was glad when I finally finished. Merely throwing in the undead or talking about funerals doesn’t do anything for me. Only one story even kind of scared me, and I think that’s because it was about a young, single woman who was attacked in her apartment—even though she was attacked by a miniature doll, so even then I wasn’t that scared.

One other issue I had with Matheson’s writing was the way he wrote about women, which I’m sure was partly a product of the times when he wrote. The 1950’s weren’t exactly a banner year for women’s issues. In the book I am Legend, Robert Neville states when he finally meets another human—a woman—that he would have “violated” her if it had been a couple years earlier because, y’know, men have needs. I tried to imagine Will Smith raping the woman he meets up with in the movie because he’s horny, and it didn’t work. Perhaps this is just a sign that men have improved in the last 50 years, or at least the men I know.

Matheson’s most annoying take on women is in his short story entitled From Shadowed Places where a rich, playboy has a curse put on him by a Zulu witch doctor while he is trophy hunting in Africa. Fortunately his fiance has an old friend from school who spent some time in Africa, learning under a witch doctor, and knows how to deal with these things. The playboy is wary because she is black and a woman but doesn’t have much of a choice. Fortunately she is a busty, black woman and she saves him by dancing around naked in front of him with his fiance and father-in-law watching, and then having sex with him and drawing the demon into herself. I sometimes felt as if I were reading the script to a really bad porno movie. Besides the fact that there didn’t seem to be anything more to this story than Matheson’s weird sex fantasy, I was also bothered by the fact that he persistently defined the women in the story as feeling shamed. The woman who saved his life felt “shamed” when she walked into the room topless. And then later in the story his fiance felt “shamed,” perhaps because she felt she shouldn’t have resisted when she watched her friend have sex with her husband-to-be. I didn’t appreciate the constant connection between women’s sexuality and shame, and I’m sure it didn’t help that I didn’t particularly like most of his short stories.

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