Saturday, 17 August 2013

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Warning: Major Plot Spoilers Near The End

Yet again, I've been breaking the rules. This time, it wasn't on purpose! But I went into reading I Am Legend knowing the ending, knowing the twist. Years ago, you see, my husband had wanted to talk about the book, probably when the most recent adaptation to movie form had come out, and I am well known for not reading horror, so it wasn't an unreasonable assumption that I would never read this.

So, wrong, in the long run, but it made reading this for the first time a very different experience than it would be for someone who was going into it cold.

And I think it made the book more horrifying, not less. Knowing what I knew, many actions suddenly appeared in a new light. I would recognize how someone would interpret it the first time, but then have the chill down my spine that knowing the narrative twist created.

In this book, Robert Neville is possibly the last human left alive. Well, that's not quite true. The last uninfected human left alive, anyway. At what point do you cease to be human? What are the defining characteristics? The rest of the human race, as far as he knows, has contracted an illness that closely mimics vampirism. (I'm not marking that with a spoiler, that comes out in the first five to ten pages, and I'm of the firm opinion that stuff that happens that early needs no spoiler tag.) Some have died, and are reanimated, walking at night. Many others are infected humans.

Neville at first works only on the simple mechanics of staying alive - it takes all of his time and mental energy, not that he has much mental energy, having lost a wife and daughter to the plague. Eventually, he turns his attention to science, and discovers certain things about the plague and why it works the way it does, although his efforts on some fronts fail to explain certain aspects - there seems to be a potential mingling of the viral and the supernatural.

I Am Legend is the story of a harried, traumatized man, trying to survive, and lashing out at those who nightly try to kill him, while he hunkers down in his barricaded house. That story, in and of itself, is interesting. It is the narrative twist that Matheson puts on it at the end that elevates it into something more.

I want to discuss some things about the ending, so let's get into spoiler territory.

At the end of the book, Neville is captured by the newly forming society of those who are infected but alive, and is sentenced to death. He realizes that he has, in fact, become the Boogeyman of this new society. If they are all that is left, he is the monster, preying on them while they sleep, particularly killing women (the book makes a point of this), dragging people from their beds and murdering them, so that when others wake up, all they find are the dead bodies of those they knew and perhaps loved.

Not only is there no place for him, but there is the recognition that he had decided they were not human and deserving of summary execution, but they saw themselves as still people, bloodsucking tendencies notwithstanding.

But this brings me to the most horrifying part of the book, one that is only vaguely hinted at, but I'm pretty sure I'm reading this right. Neville's wife died. He couldn't bear to take her to the firepits where, at that point, the authorities were mandating all bodies be taken. He buried her. She came back, and tried to kill him.

That's all pretty clear. What's less overt is that, as far as I can tell, when he was able to disable her again, he took her to a mausoleum, nailed her into a coffin, and CONTINUES TO NAIL HER INTO THAT COFFIN every time she makes progress on breaking out. He visits, and checks on the nails. There is an earlier scene where he wonders if he'll have enough coffin nails, and this is the only use for which they are mentioned.

So you have a man who, from the perspective of the vampires, preys on them while they sleep, steals family members out of their beds and leaves their dead and decaying bodies behind, keeps a woman trapped in a coffin eternally...yeah, he makes a pretty good boogeyman.

Because we've taken the ride with him, that's an unsettling realization.

It's also why the people have to remain vampires, not get turned into zombies, or mutants, or whatever. Nothing else gives you that time period where they are quiescent, sleeping during the day, unable to wake up, while he stalks among them. But I'm not sure Hollywood's ever going to be up for that ending anyway.

I found I Am Legend unsettling to read, in a good way, and the rest of the stories in the version I had to be entertaining. And that twist is one of the all-time greats. I have a hard time thinking of a better. 

1 comment:

  1. At the end, to Ruth about his wife, he says "I had to put a stake in her." His visit to her final resting place was just that.