Tuesday, 22 June 2010

I am Legend: the darkest post-apocalyptic book ever written?

That's the question that's been asked over on the Orbit blog by Terry DeHart:
What is it about early postwar sci-fi that makes its worlds seem so dark and realistically shabby? Proximity to nuclear annihilation? The poorly forgotten horrors of World War Two? The rote mediocrity of peace after the time of global death and flame ended, the famished beginning of the age of mass consumption? Or is it only that we’ve been conditioned by the black-and-white movies of that time?
Whatever it is, Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND is shot through with it. This book is wonderfully dark. Neville drinks. He sweats and laughs and cooks and eats and cries and, in between bouts of near-insanity, he kills people. It seems as if killing is the most rational thing left to do. And Matheson puts the reader right there with him.
I'm not able to offer an answer as to whether I am Legend is the best post-apocalyptic book ever written (I'm not nearly well read enough to even begin considering that question) but having read Richard Matheson's famous novel I can certainly understand why it's considered to be a contender for this accolade.

Although I've only read I am Legend once, and that being several years ago, so many of the novel's scenes have stuck in my mind and even now I can recall them with clarity.

What I love most about this book is the psychology of it all, the way Robert Neville goes from being the hunter during the day to being the hunted at night. The desolation and loneliness of the urban landscape is wonderfully portrayed by Matheson, yet the sheer isolation and claustrophobia that he imbues Neville's nights with is even more striking and shocking. Imagining Robert Neville - the last man on Earth - sitting in his living room, drinking liquor and listening to classical music as the hordes of vampires shriek out his name and throw themselves against his defenses, is just such a powerful image - it speaks of both hope and hopelessness, determination and despair.

Matheson's prose is also wonderfully blunt, yet evocative. The opening sentence is one of the best I've ever read:
On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.
With that one line Matheson says so much: he reveals the significance of the sunset, the vulnerability of Neville in his inability to gauge it effectively, and of course the oppressive threat that he faces. One sentence, so much meaning. Brilliant.

I am Legend is available as part of the Gollancz Masterworks series, and if you've not read it - why not? - then you can pick it up for a fiver on Amazon.

Oh, and forget the recent film adaptation - it's total garbage and barely reflects the novel at all, let alone reflect its brilliance.

17 comments:

Ryan Anderson said...

'I am Legend' was near the top of a long list of books I want to read, but I think you've bumped it up to the top. Now if only it was available on Kindle...

Ryan Anderson said...
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Seak (Bryce L.) said...

Definitely a dark book, especially the completely amazing ending which actually explains why he is "legend" instead of the sad attempt at explanation the movie gives.

T.D. Newton said...

I second (third?) the movie being terrible. I haven't read the book yet, but since I've pretty much forgotten everything about the movie by now, I think it's probably safe to say a comparison won't be an issue. I'll put it on the to-read list, for sure.

The Evil Hat said...

Incredible book, huge swathes of which are burned into my memory. The movie wasn't a bad movie, but it was a popcorn flick at best, bearing only the name and a few (poorly conveyed) tenants of the sitting of the book.

Eeleen Lee said...

this book posited a medical explanation for vampirism waaay back in the 1950s. Classic

downtown guy said...

A good one to be sure, but nowhere near the darkest. I think my vote for that one would be Shute's On the Beach.

Richard Cooper said...
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Richard Cooper said...

(deleted the earlier comment due to typos) It's as good a novel as I've read - it's terrifying, but it's also very moving (Especially that terrific, heartbreaking scene where Neville befriends a dog). Matheson's novel The Shrinking Man is possibly even better - these two novels deliver everything you could want from fiction. They're great works of imaginative peril, and yet they tell you as much about the human condition as any realist novel.

Stephen said...

It's quite terrifying and absolutely a fantastic novel. No spoilers, but the ending was a huge surprise to me and I never saw it coming. There are also some parallels between it and The Reapers are the Angels out later this year. Similar themes, but very different story and utterly brilliant too.

Mimouille said...

An incredible novel indeed, but to me as much about how people deal with solitude in general as about anything else.

Matthew Bradley said...

Richard Cooper's comment about the dog gets to the heart of what was wrong with the Will Smith version. Sure, we're affected by Sam's death in the film, but until that point, her "superdog" status lessens Neville's essential loneliness in a way that the pathetic pooch in the novel does not. Other choices similarly robbed Matheson's story of dramatic impact. For a detailed analysis of all three feature-film versions, as well as Matheson's influence on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, see my forthcoming book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN.

Sam Sykes said...

I'd say it's definitely right up there for the fact that the despair at the end isn't that Robert isn't the last man on earth, but more that it's he's the last monster on earth.

He spent all his time trying to rebuild society and, surprise motherfucker, it moved on without him.

The real tragedy of it was that the movie was actually pretty good, but by contrast to the book, it reeked terribly.

Did you know Will Smith is starring in the American remake of "Oldboy?" He is destroying my loves.

James said...

Sam - you actually thought the movie was good? I must say I thought it was a load of crap, with/without the comparisons to the novel. The use of CGI for the vampires was a huge mistake.

Richard Cooper said...

that sounds like a fine book, Matthew. Duel is easily my favourite movie, for very similer reasons to why I am Legend and The Shrinking Man are among my favourite books, which, given Matheson wrote the screenplay based on his own short story, isn't surprising.

rojomoke said...

While I agree the Will Smith effort was garbage, the first adaptation, The Omega Man, was outstanding.

Matthew Bradley said...

For rojomoke's information, THE OMEGA MAN was actually the second version of I AM LEGEND; the first and easily the most faithful was THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, with Vincent Price. FYI, RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN is now tentatively set to be published in early October. Of course, you can always pre-order it. :-)

http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4216-4