In Matheson’s ‘Legend,’ the build-up may often be slow, but the payoff is typically deadly

April 22, 2013

The premise of I Am Legend is almost primal in its appeal. To use the tag line on a recent edition of this Richard Matheson, in the eponymous novella, “The last man on Earth is not alone.”

So powerful is the concept of this 1954 story that I Am Legend has been filmed not once but four times, with varying degrees of fidelity. (I’ve seen none of these movies, the most notable of which have starred Vincent Price, Charlton Heston and Will Smith.)

The original story by Matheson centers on Robert Neville, a seemingly unremarkable suburban Los Angeleseño who appears to be the only man to have survived intact a plague that converted the world’s population into vampires.

Neville alternates between despair and resolve. Matheson follows him as he makes his daily rounds: Killing vampires in their slumbers and researching possible causes and cures for the plague on sunny days, maintaining and fortifying his home on cloudy ones.

The author deftly paints the psychological stresses his hero suffers. Neville is very much an Everyman, or at least he fits the image of John Q. Public that many 1954 magazine readers likely had. He’s handy with tools but has limited ability to absorb the scientific knowledge that could lead him to an antidote. Still, he makes do, fighting off the temptations of alcohol and suicide.

The story takes some turns that I did not expect, and while Neville is not typically heroic at the novella’s conclusion, Matheson does build to a strangely satisfying climax.

The novella spans about 55 percent of the 2007 paperback reprint I read (a publishing tie-in with the Smith vehicle of that year). The remainder of the volume consists of 10 tales originally printed between 1951 and 1989. The least worthy of these are probably “Witch War,” more a concept sketched in anecdote form than a story, and “The Near Departed,” which amounts to a not-so-clever joke told over two and a half pages.

On the next tier up, I’d place “Buried Talents,” which has barely any characters to speak of but features a nasty payoff. “Dance of the Dead” has vivid but insufferable characters; its conclusion is suitably nasty, but as with “Buried Talents,” it doesn’t feel entirely consistent with the preceding text. “From Shadowed Places” did better at sustaining my interest, but this battle against primal African magic set in a Manhattan apartment lacks the shock value that it surely had when the tale debuted in 1960. “The Funeral” is a silly but fun story about a mortician who is hired to serve a very unusual client and a group of very odd would-be mourners.

A gem of Matheson’s collection is “Dress of White Silk,” a creepy first-person narrative of a young girl and the misdeed that led to her being punished by her grandmother; this short outing has a fierce kicker. “Prey” conveys the terror of a young adult woman who engages a small fetish doll in a deadly battle. The concept isn’t novel, but the execution is top notch, and again, Matheson ends his tale on a nasty note.

The other two stories in the collection also have sharp kickers. “Person to Person” is intriguing throughout; it’s something of a puzzle-oriented narrative in which the premise seems to shift every few pages. “Mad House” I felt was too drawn out, although part of that may have been how uncomfortable I was made by Matheson’s deeply angry main character. I would rate “Mad House” lower were it not for the sharpness of his writing and the beautiful metaphor the author spins around the challenge of putting words to paper. The stinging conclusion also bolsters the story’s case.

The tales in I Am Legend aren’t gory, and some may seem a bit musty for lovers of contemporary horror. But horror aficionados with a love of classic writers or those with a yen for classic apocalyptic fiction could do much worse than to pick up this volume.

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