Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Matheson Kind of Disappoints

Stephen King (whom I think is overrated but whose opinion nevertheless carries some weight) says, "I think the author who influenced me the most as a writer was Richard Matheson. Books like I Am Legend were an inspiration to me." According to Dean Koontz (whom I love, even though some of his recent works have descended into schmaltzy moralizing), I Am Legend is the "most clever and riveting vampire novel since Dracula." While it certainly is better than anything Stephenie Meyer could ever come out with, I was nevertheless left feeling . . . let down. Anticlimatic. Sort of.

One of the things that morbidly draws us to post-apocalyptic literature is, I think, not only that terrifying concept that human folly will ultimately destroy modern civilization, but also that same haunted quality that draws people to ponder crumbling cities among the riotously overgrown jungle, or the stark beauty seen in the remains of ancient Rome under the blue sky. There is a poem by Wallace Stevens called "Sunday Morning," in which he reflects on the notion that "Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her / Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams / And our desires." Or, "Death is the mother of beauty, mystical, / Within whose burning bosom we devise / Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly." One of my English professors used it to discuss The Iliad, but I think this idea of terrible splendor is really a universal perception. It's long been a part of the aesthetic of Gothic literature going back to Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764); you also see it, for example, in Poe's depiction of the ill-fated House of Usher and his evocation of "the dim and decaying city on the Rhine" in the oppressively atmospheric "Ligeia." I remember reading somewhere that Europe's eighteenth-century aristocracy was fond of including fake ruins in their estate gardens to give them precisely that ambiance. Part of the attraction of the recent I Am Legend film with Will Smith, as well as Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, was precisely their convincing on-screen portrayals of New York City and London emptied of human habitation and bearing the scars of catastrophe and corrosion.

I hate to say it, but this really is one of those rare cases where the movie is better than the book. (I mean the Will Smith movie – I haven't seen either of its two predecessors.) First of all, Matheson's use of vampires could have worked out, if only he hadn't included all those hokey clichĂ©s like the fear of crosses and death by wooden stake. Yes, I know that he attempted to legitimize the stuff by having protagonist Robert Neville uncover scientific and psychological explanations for it and reminding us that the "strength of the vampire is that no one will believe in him." But still, none of it could quite convince me to sufficiently suspend my disbelief, especially since the pseudo-Freudian psychology seemed hopelessly outdated (the book was first published in 1954). Apparently, vampires' aversion to crosses is the result of their subconscious. But I will say this: the scenes where Neville lays in bed at night in his barricaded house while the vampires scream and bang around outside were very well done:
He sat in the living room, trying to read. He'd made himself a glass of whiskey and soda at his small bar and he held the cold glass as he read a physiology text. From the speaker over the hallway door, the music of Schöenberg was playing loudly.

Not loudly enough, though. He still heard them outside, their murmuring and their walkings about and their cries, their snarling and fighting among themselves. Once in a while a rock or brick thudded off the house. Sometimes a dog barked.

But despite moments like this, and the one describing the perpetually burning mass grave, I Am Legend still didn't really give me that sense of atmosphere, an element that is especially vital in post-apocalyptic literature. It's not enough to keep the reading running along with fast-paced action or perched on the edge of their chair in moments of suspense. There are plenty of cheap crime thrillers to do just that. Again, what you need is that vision of modern society as a ruin. The reader needs to be able to see their world as that lost city in the jungle, as Dean Koontz once put it:
[He] found it hard to believe that Snowfield had been a normal, bustling village only a short while ago. The town felt as dry and burnt-out as an ancient lost city in a far desert, off in the corner of the world where even the wind often forgot to go. The hush of the town seemed a silence of countless years, of decades, of centuries, a silence of unimaginably long epochs piled on epochs. (Phatoms)
Wonder if Koontz was thinking of I Am Legend when he wrote that. Also, check out this great piece of Star Wars fan fiction. (No, really!)

I think I mean to say that the prose felt flat. I think that was it. I would speculate that a lot of the book's appeal came from the novelty of its plot and the provocative twist at the end. The last human on earth becomes a "legend" to the previously fabled beings who have now taken over. It’s a pretty neat concept, and I'm not surprised that things really picked up as the story wound to a close and Neville began to identify with the undead vampire whom the living ones had set out to ruthlessly exterminate.
Still Cortman [a vampire] kept crawling, and Neville saw his white face, his teeth gritted together. The end of Oliver Hardy, he thought, the end of all comedy and all laughter. He didn't hear the continuous fusillade of shots. He didn't even feel the tears running down his cheeks. His eyes were riveted on the ungainly form of his old friend inching up the brightly lit roof.
The novel closes on a very poignant note that actually does make the whole thing worth reading, since it is to this realization on Neville's part that the story has been building towards. So did I like I Am Legend? Not really, but it is nevertheless an intriguing book and it's possible other readers may strongly disagree with my assessments of it. You have to read it yourself.

I did a Google Image search for "post-apocalyptic" and found this neat pics. Some of them actually reminded me alarmingly of East Baltimore, which I passed through on a train to Washington DC.


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