Tuesday, 1 November 2011

‘I Am Legend’ – Richard Matheson (Gollancz/Tor)

Some books just dig their claws right into you and never let go (in good ways and bad). It could be years between each read but whenever you see that particular book on the shelf you’ll remember just how you felt when you picked it up for the first time. You might even be tempted to pick it up for another read. We all have books like that on our shelves and I’m no different. Well, maybe I’m a little different. You see, there’s a book that has had its claws well and truly dug into me for the last ten years, at least, that I don’t think I’ll ever get out of my head. It’s such an intense and frightening read though that I haven’t been able to keep a copy on my shelves for a long time now. That book is, of course, Richard Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend’ and it was it’s re-release, as part of the ‘Gollancz 50 Top Ten’, which prompted me to go back and give it another go (Tor have also republished the book in the US). ‘I Am Legend’ had its claws in me already but now those claws have just sunk a little bit deeper...

Robert Neville is the last living man on Earth, everyone else has become a vampire thirsting for human blood... Nevilles.

By day Neville stalks the empty streets of his hometown, trying to fathom the root cause of the vampire disease whilst clearing out homes of any vampires that he can find. When night falls, Neville barricades himself inside his home and waits for the dawn while the night air carries cries for his blood. Neville has a drink problem and only himself for company, how long can he survive like this...?

I think I’ll always have a soft spot for Robert McCammon’s ‘They Thirst’, as my favourite vampire novel, but ‘I Am Legend’ pushes it really hard for the top spot. If I’m being honest, and take personal preference out of the picture entirely, then ‘I Am Legend’ is the better novel by a long way. It may be a relatively short read but Matheson makes full use of every single word to deliver a tale that is terrifying, on more than one front, but also strangely upbeat by the end. I knew the read I was in for but I still couldn’t put the book down until I’d finished.

We all like a bit of time to ourselves but that’s only really because we do it safe in the knowledge that human contact is never too far away when we’re ready for it again. What if that contact wasn’t there though? What if all you had was the knowledge that the only person you could spend time with was yourself? How long do you reckon you’d last before you ran out of things to talk to yourself about? Scary thought, isn’t it?

Matheson attacks this theme on two levels, racking up the tension on each page. Neville isn’t alone but for all intents and purposes that’s exactly what he is, it’s not like he can step out of his house and talk to the people waiting outside... All Neville has are reminders of the world ‘pre-apocalypse’, music and books mostly, and his own spoken thoughts. These are mostly recriminatory and you can tell by these that Neville really doesn’t enjoy his own company, especially when he tries to fight off the memories of the family that he had before.

What we’re given then is a man who must not only live in isolation from those around him but must also try to isolate himself from himself if he is to stand any chance of survival. Neville has varying degrees of success on both fronts and this moves the story along in just the right manner and at exactly the right speed. You literally have to keep reading to see what becomes of Neville by the end of the book. Matheson injects the proceedings with brief moments of hope and you can’t help but feel for Neville as reality comes crashing through these dreamlike moments. It’s an incredibly bleak read and you can’t help but admire Neville’s resolve in the face of it all. Neville’s rationalisation of the vampire disease may be flawed but he never gives up trying to puzzle it out.

Matheson surrounds what is an absorbing character study with a world that is almost exactly the same as ours except for one important detail; it is completely empty whenever Neville ventures out into it. Somehow, Neville’s wanderings through the streets reinforce just how lonely it all is and I found myself reading the book very quietly, just so I didn’t disturb what was a deathly hush.

There is danger though, of course, and Matheson makes this clear from the very first page...

‘On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.’

This is the opening line of the book and what a line it is! Those cloudy days present a very real danger but you have to keep on reading before you get any idea of what it is. A great way to keep you reading almost without you realising it. There are other moments like this throughout the book and, without spoiling it for those who haven’t read it yet, all I’ll say is that I’ve never been so scared at the thought of a watch stopping...

The moments where Neville is under siege are nerve wracking times, for reasons mentioned already, but they also serve to highlight a point that Matheson uses to cast the book in an entirely new light (right at the very end). It’s a neat little twist that seems really obvious when you stop to think about it but the rest of the book is such that you won’t really have been able to stop and think about it until you reach that point. It’s a real surprise then and it helps Neville to feel a little more at ease with his ultimate fate.

‘I Am Legend’ is a classic vampire tale, make no mistake about it, and is pretty much essential reading for anyone wondering what to read after ‘Dracula’. There’s so much to chew over here and by the time you put the book down you won’t be the same person who picked it up; I guarantee it.

Ten out of Ten.


Carmen said...

Not read it. It's on my radar... why did I have it in my head that it was a zombie novel?? Weird. MUST get it now after this review.

Jordan said...

One of my favorite books. It was absolutely criminal what Hollywood did with it.

Rabid Fox said...

Excellent review. When I read this years ago, I just fell in love with it. I've been gobbling up Matheson's work whenever I can.

It's a toss-up between this and Hell House for my favorite.

The chilling ending to the short novel really takes the cake.

Graeme Flory said...

Carmen - It's probably the fact that I'm all about zombies that had you thinking that :o) Or have you seen 'The Omega Man' (one of the film adaptations)? I think that had creatures that were like zombies... Either way, get yourself a copy of 'I Am Legend' (they're going for pennies on Amazon); I don't think you'll regret it.

Jordan - I've never seen the Will Smith film, maybe I'll stay away for a bit longer!

Rabid Fox - I haven't read much of Matheson's work but I can see that changing now. I need to find myself a copy of 'Hell House'...

Mark said...

Brilliant review, one of my favourite reads in recent years.