Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend
March 9, 2012, 8:52 am
Filed under: Book Reviews, Horror | Tags: , , , , , ,

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend belongs on the shelf next to Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. Matheson’s book considers the vampire not only as a scourge, but as a sort of new development in evolution, a sudden leap forward for humankind. Matheson asks not just what life is like for the last man on earth, but what life is for those he is fighting against.

The bulk of I Am Legend is about Robert Neville’s daily life: his to-do lists, his efforts to keep up his home, his meals, his “shopping” trips, and his attempts to learn more about vampires – first to learn how to kill them, and then to see if there is any way of curing them of their disease. Vampirism in Matheson’s novel is spread not only by the bite of vampires, but by air. In flashbacks, we see the early days of the plague, when few people had any suspicion that the illness going around was more than a particularly virulent strain of the flu.

One of the real joys in reading I Am Legend is the simplicity of Matheson’s prose, and the way he fits Neville’s attempts to survive into the text as just another part of the day. Early in the novel, removing vampires who have been killed by their fellows – each night they mass outside Neville’s home, sometimes eating one another when no better fare presents itself – is presented as no more notable an activity than gathering other debris from around the house.

He put on heavy gloves and walked over to the woman on the sidewalk.

There was certainly nothing attractive about them in the daylight, he thought, as he dragged them across the lawn and threw them up on the canvas tarpaulin. There wasn’t a drop left in them; both women were the color of fish out of water. He raised the gate and fastened it. He went around the lawn then, picking up stones and bricks and putting them into a cloth sack. He put the sack in the station wagon and then took off his gloves. He went inside the house, washed his hands, and made lunch: two sandwiches, a few cookies, and a thermos of hot coffee.

Neville’s story is told over years, allowing Matheson to fully explore what isolation and waning hope do to a man. I Am Legend is, at end, a story about what makes a person. Neville’s attempts to learn something about the vampires, to in some way help them and in so doing help himself, reveals the depth of his loneliness. When he sees a dog, a fellow survivor, he is caught between joy at the potential for a companion, and some deeper despair that he can’t hope for anything more than a dog.

It’s fascinating, too, to watch Matheson play with traditional ideas of the vampire. When he realizes that it’s vampires, not simply a disease, that he’s up against, Neville’s research pushes him to confront the romanticized images of the vampire in literature, and how those images are both applicable to, and vastly different from, the vampires he faces.

And all without blood-eyed vampires hovering over heroines’ beds. All without bats fluttering against estate windows, all without the supernatural. The vampire was real. It was only that his true story had never been told.

Matheson seamlessly weaves together these two halves of the story: Neville’s attempts to live in “a world in which murder was easier than hope”, and the true story of the vampire. In doing so, he gives us a classic and gorgeously wrought story that faces, in nearly equal measure, the questions of hope, loneliness, and what it means to live – from the view of both vampire and man.


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Review: Colson Whitehead’s Zone One

Colson Whitehead manages the seemingly impossible in Zone One, injecting the zombie novel with a literary bent. He takes this idea of the undead, the afterlife taken to its most gruesome conclusion, and uses it as a filter to look at a city, to look at the people who survived the apocalypse (or rather, the people who have survived longer than the others have), to look at the reasons for their survival, and to examine what hope means when there seems little reason to hope. What’s more, in doing these things he makes them seem obvious – how did no one think, sooner than this, to do with zombies what Whitehead has done so well in Zone One?

As it opens, the novel is almost a love affair with New York City, with “Mark Spitz” (a nickname, but the only way we know our main character) looking back on visits to his uncle and the ever-changing city. This image of New York, of wreckage followed by new buildings, again and again, are eerily prescient of the later images of the zombies walking the New York streets, apparently capable not only of endless arrival but of endless development. This early image of New York, though, retains a sort of quiet beauty in its vision of endless restructuring:

In every neighborhood the imperfect in their fashion awaited the wrecking ball and their bones were melted down to help their replacements surpass them, steel into steel. The new buildings in wave upon wave drew themselves out of rubble, shaking off the past like immigrants. The addresses remained the same and so did the flawed philosophies. It wasn’t anyplace else. It was New York City. (6)

The world Mark Spitz inhabits, a New York that’s been decimated and cleared of its former inhabitants, a New York that has been divided into zones now being painstakingly cleared of “skels” (the zombies) and “stragglers,” who aren’t quite zombies but exist in some nether world, standing motionless at some post they’ve selected for reasons Spitz and his compatriots will never be able to understand, is one with moments of hope. Though Spitz suspects the world has been left with only the people who were mediocre in their former lives (like him, whose “most appropriate designation” in a high school yearbook “would have been Most Likely Not to Be Named the Most Likely Anything” [10]), and though his life at the moment consists of little but walking through building after building, seeking the stragglers missed by the marines who did the first run-through of Zone One, he also finds some cause to hope for a better world as a result of the crushing defeat of the former system. Brief as these moments may be, Whitehead’s vision of the indominatibility of both human hope and despair is powerful:

There was a single Us now, reviling a single Them. Would the old bigotries be reborn as well, when they cleared out this Zone, and the next, and so on, and they were packed together again, tight and suffocating on top on each other? Or was that particular bramble of animosities, fears, and envies impossible to recreate? If they could bring back paperwork, Mark Spitz thought, they could certainly reanimate prejudice, parking tickets, and reruns. (231)

Whitehead occasionally uses this zombie plague as an opportunity to comment on these issues of race and class and the bigotries humans can’t seem to help holding. He’s never heavy-handed with this, though, and the New York Mark Spitz is working in now is at times crushing for the ways it is similar to the previous world, and the ways in which it is different. Though Spitz and the others trying to clear Zone One of skels and stragglers are, on paper, the survivors of the old order, Whitehead suggests, too, that the skels are blindly keeping that old world alive, that in them you can see some true New York story.

The damned bubbled and frothed on the most famous street in the world, the dead things still proudly indicating, despite their grime and wounds and panoply of leaking orifices, the tribes to which they had belonged, in gray pin-striped suits, classic rock T-shirts, cowboy boots, dashikis, striped cashmere cardigans, fringed suede vests, plush joggings suits. What they had died in. All the misery of the world channeled through this concrete canyon, the lament into which the human race was being transformed person by person. Every race, color, and creed was represented in this congregation that funneled down the avenue. As it had been before, per the myth of this melting-pot city. The city did not care for your story, the particular narrative of your reinvention; it took them all in, every immigrant in their strivings, regardless of bloodline, the identity of their homeland, the number of coins in their pocket. Nor did this plague discriminate; your blood fell instantly or your blood held out longer, but your blood always failed in the end. (243)

Zone One is an extraordinary novel, one of those rare concerted mashups of literary and genre fiction that doesn’t cheapen either genre but rather brings both to new heights. Whitehead’s zombies are zombies, literally, but they are also a marker of something else – of the way the things and stories we hope to bury have a way of endlessly renewing themselves.


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Story Sundays: Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

We’re going with a classic this week – that favorite of high school English classes, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Poe packs a healthy dose of horror into this short story, and it’s not what the narrator does – murdering a man because of his blue eye, describing in matter-of-fact manner how he hides the body – as how he tells us what he does. The narrator through the story makes claims to his sanity, but the very things he views as markers of his sanity reveal his madness to the reader.

And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over acuteness of the senses?—now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.

Coloring the story is the narrator’s pride at the murder, and his actions in the week that leads up to it. As he writes early in the story, “you should have seen me.” “The Tell-Tale Heart” is probably as good a lesson in writing horror as exists: it’s not what the narrator does in the story, but what he thinks about what he does, that is so awful to the reader.

Read “The Tell-Tale Heart”

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