A brief google of Richard Matheson leads to several articles about his influence on vampires, horror films, and science fiction. When he died in 2013, George Romero and other directors talked about his episodes on the Twilight Zone and his movies and the inspirations they drew from him. Steven King has written about how Matheson shaped his writing and dedicated a book to him (I’d also suggest that one of King’s most interesting techniques, how he humanizes the monster, is learned from Matheson). Anne Rice credits Matheson with her early love affair with vampires (and having read I Am Legend and Interview with a Vampire I can see how she began a conversation with Matheson’s sexualization of the vampires that lead to disaster in the Twilight years).
So I’m surprised, that as an avid reader of science fiction and horror, I Am Legend is the only Richard Matheson book I’ve encountered. I read this once before when I was in high school (I can tell because my notations in the margin are painful to look at now) and then watched the Will Smith movie and went on with my preference to zombies over vampires.
In reading I Am Legend, a second time, older and more knowledgeable about the craft at any rate, I was able to enjoy the work more. I was less jaded about the 50’s fear of nuclear annihilation more open to that same time’s optimism about humanity’s ability to rebuild itself. I noticed the layers of conflict that none of the movie versions will ever be able to quite capture.
I’ve read that there are only three types of stories. Man vs. God (sometime society or nature), Man vs. Man, and Man vs. Self. I’ve always found this more simplistic than helpful, since good stories seem to do several of these at once. I Am Legend certainly deals with all three at once in startling and beautiful prose.
Robert Neville is one of the most interesting characters in literature. His poetic introspection, sometimes raging at the universe, sometimes simply making lists, defies even the best films based on this book (and there have been at least four). Neville takes us through his precise days and self-destructive nights and thinks he’s only talking about fighting ‘them’. Matheson shows us from the first page the extreme caution and resourcefulness Neville is capable of when fighting the monsters.
But very quickly, readers see that the great fight is with loneliness. I loved how Neville was at odds with himself. He did not want to be analytical like his father, but his rational study of the monsters and the plague gave him purpose. He didn’t want to let go of society and give in to his base instincts, but he had nothing to hold onto. While he tore himself in two with loneliness and despair, fighting inside his own mind, he would remind himself that he had to take care of his teeth.
By the end of the novel, Neville has lost his fight against the entire world, against his own misguided ethics, and against a new society. And nowhere is that fight better examined than in his view of Ruth and the other female vampires.
When I first read this story I was deeply annoyed by Matheson’s ideas about women and how weak they seemed to be. I underlined huge swaths of text and dismissed them as typical 50’s sexism, but on this read through, I wondered if maybe it wasn’t Matheson talking, but Neville.
One of Neville defying traits is his inability to handle things that fall outside how he wants them. Just as he has the initial inability to differentiate living vampires from the dead ones, he seems unable to see that a woman might have use beyond sex. The female vampires in Neville’s world strike vile postures, pose like lewd puppets (first chapter), enticing him outside. Neville fights with his lust and his need for control throughout the book, but particularly in the first part. Not only does he fantasize about vampire women outside his door, but he only experiments on women. One of the most disturbing lines in the book for me was in chapter seven, when Neville is in conversation with himself: “For God’s sake! … I’m not going to rape the woman! Crossing your fingers, Neville?” He ignores this back and forth in his thoughts and comes to the conclusions, “Morality had fallen with society. He was his own ethic.”
When Neville first met Ruth and chased her was almost as terrifying to me as when he’d had his close run in with the vampires in the first part. I had forgotten the viciousness of that pursuit, his dogged need to catch and keep her.
But I had not forgotten that Ruth was one of the vampires, so on the second reading of the book, I saw her not as the weak, simpering creature I had written notes about on my first reading, but as a spy in enemy territory. Matheson created a woman who has accepted a new and equal role in her new and equal society, but is forced to return to her old ways to deal with this old threat. In order to get information about her race that might make their lives easier, that might save their lives, she has to play by Neville’s rules, earn his trust, and subjugate herself to his dominance. I was thrilled as I read Ruth’s adventures in the lair of the beast the second time.
Then I was disappointed when she fell in love with him. I think I will always hold that against Matheson, though I will try to forgive him as a man of the 50s. Matheson redeemed himself when Ruth was revealed as a ranking officer in the new society, a woman in power, which I image was just as startling to Neville as the plague in the first place.
I love their exchange at the very end and what it reveals about Ruth’s fragility in this new role. Neville says, “‘Don’t let it get … too brutal. Too heartless.’ ‘What can I-’ she started, then stopped… ‘I’ll try.’”
Richard Matheson wasn’t the first writer to make the monster a fully-fledged character with the sympathies and the understanding of the reader. Mary Shelly did that in Frankenstein, for example. But there was something unique in Matheson’s approach to humanizing the monster. While Matheson does not undermine the terror of the vampires, he shows us a glimpse of their humanity in Ruth. The reader likes Ruth. We are rooting for her to gain Neville’s trust. We want them to save humanity together. We badly want her to the companion he was looking for.
If my early notes in the margin are any indication, the realization that Ruth is a vampire is earth shattering. The face of Matheson’s dark villain turns out to be a scared young woman desperate to learn about herself and her people from the monster who’s been sneaking into their homes and murdering them. Matheson takes readers even deeper into this hole when Neville is taken into custody by their law (I particularly liked when their law men butcher Ben Cortman, his old best friend and worst enemy and I think a good metaphor for Neville’s survival instinct).
He meets Ruth again, not as a scared young woman but as a leader of her people and he gets a look at the gathered crowd come to witness his execution. Neville thinks in the final chapter, “I’m the abnormal one now. Normalcy was a majority concept, the standard of many and not the standard of just one man”. This blurring of the line between what is monster and what is man takes this book out of the faceless legions of horror stories about killing the other and asks readers to take another look at the bogey men in their lives and try to understand the other.