Baptism of Blood:
My Initiation to Horror
(A Book Review of Richard Matheson’s I am Legend)
After reading this masterpiece by Richard Matheson, I was overtaken by a great feeling of regret. Regret that I had to wait for so long just to sink my (fanged) teeth into this magnificent post-apocalyptic vampire story. Regret that I saw the recent movie adaptation of the same title first before reading it — which, honestly, didn’t do justice to the author’s vision. If you haven’t heard of nor made aware of this book’s existence, then most likely you’ve seen various of its big screen adaptations which go by these titles: The Last Man on Earth in 1964, The Omega Man in 1971, and the recent Will Smith flick that retained the original title but not the story. Okay, with that settled I need not (and let me beg off) elaborating what this book is about.
Rather, I want to state here the salient points of this “clever and riveting vampire novel since Dracula.”
Written in 1953 and published in 1954, I am Legend is a work of subtle allegory on the McCarthyism of the day, as well as the rigid conformity of the 1950s leading to the cultural sterilization and death of the masses. It also rings with American fears of Communism and the Cold War.
If there’s anything this novel significantly proves, it’s Matheson’s sheer genius and prescience. Throughout I Am Legend, Matheson explores the vampire myth from a scientific point of view. Neville reduces garlic, for example, to its chemical constituents to find what offends vampires so. And when tackling other conventions, of the more psychological ilk, questions are asked, such as “what would a Mohammedan vampire do if faced with a cross?” It’s to his credit that he doesn’t just accept such traits as staples of the genre and dares to question them, lifting his novel from more pulpy contemporaries.
If there’s someone who clearly owes the credit to “the last man on earth” plot device, I’d got to say Matheson’s got to be it. I am Legend is the well from where the classic movie Night of the Living Dead by George A. Romero sprung from; which for me attests to Matheson’s foresight. The novel’s continuing, renewable relevance through time marks it as an enduring work of art (as if the range of movie remakes didn’t confirm that! Hah!).
Robert Neville is easily one of the most thoroughly examined characters that make this novel “a thoughtful, meditative exploration of solitude and despair.” The book follows him from several months after his status as lone survivor is established to a few years later. He discovers the facts about the disease that explain many of the legendary vampire characteristics. By his sheer effort alone he found reasons how the disease spread — and his immunity to it. After despair, boredom and the ceaseless monotony of his daily hunts for the living and dead vampires, and the nightly attacks on his house-cum-fortress by them, it is just the age old quest for knowledge that impels him onward. It’s an impressive, and sometimes humorous, account of the semi-existential Neville, clinging on to cherish his humanity in the face of pretty bleak adversity is what makes it for me a damn good read.
Another interesting point is the book’s title is I am Legend not “I am a Legend.” The articular difference in the title is not random. It is as if, in my opinion, Matheson more intimately associates the reader with the protagonist and, to a certain extent, the vampires (or Matheson’s idea of it) which he deconstructs in this novel. I Am Legend charts Neville’s passage from man to monster as he goes around by day killing the slumbering vampires. Where, in the Bible Jesus met a man possessed and, on asking his name, was told, “I am Legion, for we are many,” so Matheson inverts this notion where the many see in him a legend, a mythical beast that haunts their numbers. And incidentally near the book’s end I couldn’t help but ask some of these questions to myself: What is normal? Who are the real outcasts?
The novel benefits from Matheson’s style, a straightforward, no frills prose, that is immensely readable, offering up page after page of horrific action coupled with a realistic study of loneliness. In the vampire canon — from the few I’ve managed to read so far, I hasten to add — it’s one of the better novels I’ve read, daring to be edgy by explaining a predominantly supernatural subject matter as science. Other vampire novels should be scared of this — it deserves, in all sense, its titular legend-ary status.
“Be warned: you are in the hands of a writer who asks no quarter and gives none. He will wring you dry…and when you close this volume he will leave you with the greatest gift a writer can give: he will leave you wanting more.”
Matheson’s command of the narrative delivers an enthralling, electrifying story. And that power is never more evident in the pages of I am Legend. If the above statement is no good recommendation enough coming from the Modern Master of Horror himself, Stephen King, then what gives?
Don’t just take my word for it.
Published by Gollancz
(Trade Paperback, August 2006 Edition)
Read in October 2009