Tuesday, February 5, 2008

I AM LEGEND by Richard Matheson

I Am Legend is Richard Matheson's short novel about the only survivor of a plague that has made everyone else on earth into something like zombie vampires. It is a foundational novel in the post-apocalyptic genre of science fiction and horror, and has been made into a movie three times: The Last Man on Earth (1964), with Vincent Price, The Omega Man (1971), with Charlton Heston, and I Am Legend (2007), with Will Smith. Of these, The Last Man on Earth follows the novel most closely.

Matheson's style often seizes on the mundane details of the situation, at times without apparent value to the story, but the overall effect is suspenseful, in large part because Matheson takes the reader inside the main character Neville's mental imbalance. Throughout the book, Neville is not only in danger from the vampires, but also from himself.

The edition I read also contained ten Matheson short stories, ranging in genre from horror to suspense. None of them are as good as I Am Legend, but a few of them are genuinely creepy and others show Matheson's knack for exploring the disturbed minds of his characters. The reader will also notice a few of Matheson's writing preferences (he loves to use the word "funereal", and he frequently describes characters' mouths as "gashes").

Like or not, books like I Am Legend are responsible for the now over-played zombie genre. Here, at least, it's done originally, and done well.