Thursday, December 27, 2012

Book Review: I Am Legend [Richard Matheson]

Bookgasm. 'Nuff said.

Post-Apocalyptic Castaway?

Once in a while, you come across a book that makes your inner bookworm orgasm. You know you've had one when you find yourself going "squeeeee!" like a crazed teenage girl over some male pop idol long after you've finished the book.

Richard Matheson's "Hell House" has been on my reading wish list for quite some time now, so when I came across this 2006 edition of I Am Legend + short stories/Hell House. I thought it was a good bargain for the price.

For "I Am Legend" alone, it already was. :D

Funny thing is, I was never interested in reading "I Am Legend." I mistakenly thought it was similar in plot to the movie of the same title starring Will Smith, or to "The Omega Man", starring Charlton Heston. (I remember watching this as a kid- my maiden aunts are BIG Charlton Heston fans). Since neither movie really appealed to me, when it came to the book, I was like, meh.

I shall now try to repress said fan girl (SQUEEEEEEE!!!!) slightly, lest I give away the entire story in this review in my enthusiasm. Well, either that, or the whole thing shall end up being punctuated by a whole bunch of squees.

Robert Neville is the last man on earth. Our setting is post-war, and due to biological warfare, a pandemic has spread and turned everyone around him into mindless, bloodsucking creatures. (Quite the zombie-vampire mix.) 

When we first meet Robert, he has been alone for several months and has given into depression and alcoholism. He has lost both wife and daughter to the disease, and his current life is an endless cycle- by day, he sets out to kill as many vampires as he can; by night, he is imprisoned in his own house, drinking, while vampires surround his house, crying out for his blood until the break of dawn.

As the story progresses, Robert eventually meets another living creature - a dog. It is this contact with life that snaps him out of his depression and inspires him to turn his energies into studying the vampire, in hopes of finally finding a cure and restoring humanity.

My take on this tale? To label Richard Matheson as a horror novelist is a gross understatement. "I Am Legend" is unclassifiable  It is more than just a horror story written to terrify its readers. It is a philosophical dialogue on a lone man struggling to survive and all the while, looking for a reason to. It is a crash course in biology, a study on social behavior and psychological conditioning, among other things. It won't take long before you're sucked into the story and you're identifying with the protagonist. A few chapters on and I found myself cheering Robert on his ingeniousness, his ability to adapt, and sympathizing with his frustrations and sadness. Richard Matheson is a true master of words. The beauty of the story mainly lies in that he has given Robert Neville a soul.

One of my favorite parts is when Robert snaps out his depression and starts researching and experimenting to find out more about the disease. Oh, the details! I loved how Matheson has a plausible explanation for every aspect of the vampire - from the physical evolution to the folklore surrounding it. Kudos to Matheson for using "hysterical blindness" (psychological conditioning + insanity) to explain why a Christian vampire would fear the cross, the Jewish vampire the torah, a Buddhist vampire the swastika, and so on. (Thank you, Mr. Matheson, for the United Colors of Vampirism.)

Oh, and of course, the ending. The last chapter was headed towards a direction I really, really didn't like. So there I was, seething, trying to keep my violent reactions in check until the very end. And then, all of a sudden, this master of words was able to deftly wrap the story up FLAWLESSLY, BEAUTIFULLY, PERFECTLY (SQUEEEEE! SQUEEEEE!), in a way that melted my heart and left me shaking my head in disbelief at how he was able to do that with JUST THREE SHORT PARAGRAPHS. Amazing.

Published in 1954, Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend" has been hailed by many as a pioneer for the global apocalypse/zombie genre, and also as "the first modern vampire novel". Sad, if you think about it, about how the paranormal genre have now evolved mostly into love stories between suicidal teenage girls and emo paranormals attending high school for eternity. Oh, and vampires now sparkle in sunlight too!

But then, as Robert Neville puts it, "Normalcy [is] a majority concept, the standard of many and not the standard of just one man." And the sarcasm of this blogger probably just stems from her love for a more eloquent bygone era. 

For classic movie buffs, the 1964 film "The Last Man on Earth" starring Vincent Price is the closest movie adaptation to the novel.

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