In anticipation of the upcoming release of the third film version of Richard Matheson's classic novel, I Am Legend, this time starring Will Smith, Bill Friday reviews the book.
Richard Matheson is legend.
And his ground breaking first novel I Am Legend started it all.
Matheson, perhaps best remembered as one of the principal writers for creator Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone in the early 1960's, was already a seasoned writer of short fiction when I Am Legend was published in 1954. And almost all works of post-apocalyptic fiction since then pay tribute, in one way or another, to Matheson's vision of vampires in Los Angeles.
Set in the future of 1976, Robert Neville is nobody special. Just a factory worker living in the L.A. suburb of Gardena, Nevile spends most of his days pillaging supplies from empty stores or doing the occasional repair job on his home - at least on the days he isn't hunting the undead. At night, Robert Neville is a prisoner by his own design, holed up in the fortress that had been home for him, his wife, and young daughter, before the mysterious plague killed everyone, and Neville was left as the last man on Earth.
Part action adventure, part psychological thought piece, I Am Legend rises to more than just a work of genre fiction. The character of Robert Neville is used to show readers just what each of us truly is, at the core of our being - the best and the worst of humanity all rolled into one very human character. In the end, Robert Neville has risen above what he was before the plague took it all away. His discoveries, both scientific and philosophical, show him to be much more than a mere factory worker (an interesting metaphor in a book that presents the failed idea of forced collectivism on unwitting classes of a new society). Ultimately, it is Neville, the novel's hero, who becomes the scourge of this new society. And as new societies go, this one isn't any different than others that have gone before. Neville is different, and different is dangerous. Dangerous to the population. Dangerous to the status quo. Dangerous to their future.
In the end, it is Robert Neville who assumes the role of "boogie man" in this new world. As vampires had been humanity's worst nightmare, now it is just a man - a man who has become legend.
No spoilers here for those who want to experience this work for yourselves before the movie hits theaters December 14th. You can find the screenplay on line in a couple of places, though I can't verify if they are the final shooting script or not. Read them at your own risk.
In the Tor edition of the book I purchased, 10 other works by Richard Matheson were added to the novel, including the legendary short story, Prey (remember the Zuni fetish doll who went by the name "He Who Kills"), which Matheson turned into one of three teleplays that comprised the script for one of the all-time television classics, Trilogy Of Terror, starring Karen Black. The collection of shorts reminded me of the 1980's Stephen King compendium, Night Shift. In fact, SK offers his thanks to Matheson on the back cover of the paperback this way: "Books like I Am Legend were an inspiration to me."
Many of Richard Matheson's stories are imprinted on the consciousness of the television generation of the 60's and 70's through other writings such as Duel (a short-turned-teleplay, directed by first-time director Steven Spielberg), as well as the scripts for the original The Night Stalker movies (the first, watched by 75 million viewers) starring Darren McGavin, and other novels that would become the films, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Legend Of Hell House, Somewhere In Time with Christopher Reeve, and What Dreams May Come with Robin Williams and Stir Of Echoes with Kevin Bacon.
And what about the writer?
Still alive at the age of 81, Richard Matheson lives in California, where he is still legend.
Copyright © 2007 Bill Friday