Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Book Review: I Am Legend

Earlier this year, I watched the new Will Smith movie adaptation of the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend. I thought the movie was fun, enjoyable, and entertaining, and Will Smith was...Will Smith. He's not a bad actor, so much as he's a predictable actor. I enjoy watching his movies either despite or because of the fact that I know what I'm getting into when I watch them, whether it's Independence Day, Men in Black, or this one.

The movie, of course, explored the idea of the "last man on earth" trying to survive against a plague of mindless zombies bent on eating him. Clearly there had been some kind of global catastrophe, which we later find out was caused by some kind of disease, and the zombies abide by certain rules that vaguely make them seem sort of like vampires.

I won't spoil the movie for you except to say that it has very little in common with the story Matheson tells in his book. I will warn you, however, that the following review does contain a lot of spoilers.

Matheson's novel deals very explicitly with the disease as causing vampirism. The vampires come in two varieties: those who are still "alive," and have some limited independent thought, and those who are "dead," and who therefore stumble around mindlessly trying to eat the protagonist.

The vampires display all of the classic signs of being a vampire: aversion to garlic and crosses, not being able to see their reflection in a mirror, being killed by a stake to the heart, inability to go out in daylight, invulnerability to bullets, fear of running water, sharp teeth, etc. The protagonist, Robert Neville, who is immune to whatever caused the vampire plague, spends his days studying and trying to find a cure for the vampire plague, and his nights cowering in his boarded up house while vampires mill around outside.

Through his studies, Neville discovers a few important things about the disease. He learns that garlic contains a compound that reacts negatively with the bacteria. He then reasons that the constant need for fresh blood stems from the bacteria's need to survive in a host that can no longer produce its own fresh blood, especially in the case of the victims that are already "dead." He also finds that the bacteria can produce a powerful "body glue" that seals up bullet wounds before they can inflict fatal damage, but that a sharply driven stake, or another serious kind of injury, like slitting the wrists, can overwhelm the "body glue" and allow the vampire to be killed.

One of the most interesting things that Neville discovers is that a lot of what the vampires display is psychological. The fear of crosses, for example, is a psychological reaction of whatever is left of the rational mind to the perception of being turned into an evil creature. He also finds that Jewish and Muslim vampires have no fear of the cross, and there's an interesting scene where he describes driving back a Jewish vampire with a copy of the Torah. Hysterical blindness, again a psychological reaction to the horror of their condition, causes the vampires to be unable to see themselves in a mirror.

This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novel: the attempt to break down and explain in scientific and psychological terms the nature of vampirism as a disease.

In the end, Neville finds a woman wandering in a field, chases her down, and brings her to his house. He is suspicious that she might be infected, having had no contact with uninfected humans for years. She reacts strongly to garlic, further strengthening his suspicions, although since he found her wandering in the daylight, he is not sure what to make of her.

Eventually, he does test her blood, and finds that she is infected. She hits him over the head, knocking him out. When he comes to, he finds a note. She is part of a "new society" of infected people who have learned to control the infection with drugs and are trying to rebuild society. She warns him that she was sent to spy on him, and that the group will more than likely come to kill him because he represents a threat to them as the only uninfected human left alive.

The book ends with Neville being captured by this new group of vampires. Ruth visits him in his prison cell and explains that he is to be executed publicly and brutally. She gives him pills that he can take to kill himself more easily and avoid the coming brutality. He realizes then that in a new world where infection is normal, he is now the abomination. The novel ends with him slipping into unconsciousness, laughing at his predicament, and realizing, as he dies, that, "I am legend."

Overall, it is a truly unique story, one that has a depth and intelligence that is missing from a lot of vampire novels, and was certainly missing from the Will Smith movie. The author's attempts to describe a scenario in which becoming a vampire is a simple biological condition, rather than something mythical, creates a certain brutal realism that works brilliantly in the context of the overall story.

The story of "I Am Legend" ends about halfway through this edition of the book. The rest of the book is filled with some of the author's vignettes and short stories. I haven't read through all of them, but the ones I have read are definitely interesting. Some tend to be mere sketches, scenes, that contain a mystery that isn't fully revealed. Others are short horror stories - one in particular is a precursor of the Child's Play movies in its depiction of a killer fetish doll that attacks a woman who bought it at a flea market. Through these short stories, we get a better idea of Matheson as an author whose writing style is dark, witty, and sharp.

I highly recommend picking up I Am Legend and reading it on its own merits. Don't try to compare it to the Will Smith movie, because they share very little in common. Matheson's story is complex and intelligent, whereas the Will Smith movie displays a somewhat disappointing but inevitable Hollywood predictability.