Thursday, August 26, 2010

What are Vampires Scared Of?

I am Legend is a story that is so strong it is a wonder it hasn’t transcended the genre and other mediums. Yet, here we sit in 2010 and after three movies that completely missed the point and a slew of post-apocalyptic stories that tread more shallow waters, I am Legend still doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

Richard Matheson has done two things in this story. First, he has scientifically explained vampirism and given it historic context. This is impressive and fun to read. The fact in this story that it all comes down to germs and spores is wonderful.

However the second thing he has done with this story is borderline genius. It is what makes I am Legend easily my favorite post-apocalyptic story of all time. I gush, but it is true.

What did Matheson do? He took the reader in and had them pull for a main character we could relate to, that we rooted for, that we hoped beyond the bleak and terrible situation that somehow, someway he, Robert Neville, would find a way to a happy ending. You know he won’t get the happy ending, but you empathize with him.

Then, when we the readers are hooked, we are invested; he pulls back to a wider view of the new world to reveal that we the readers have in fact been pulling for the new world’s boogeyman. Neville is the thing that goes bump in the night. He is the thing that vampires, vampires, fear.

That shift in focus, that revelation is so wonderful, so original, so beyond awesome as a writer that I still find myself reflecting on it. This is at least the third time I’ve read this story and I continue to enjoy that delicious twist. How does Matheson pull this off?

First, his main character is very much the every man. He is a married factory/plant worker with a young child. He carpools with his neighbor, loves his wife, and is just as baffled about the dust storms and rumors of infected people as the reader. He isn’t some superhuman or military dynamo. He isn’t a scientist with a lab and a staff. He’s just a guy. It’s easier to pull for this kind of character.

By the time we meet Robert Neville the world has ended. He’s all alone in a world populated by vampires. As he hunts for supplies to survive he dispatches these creatures with all the passion of someone vacuuming a carpet. It isn’t bad, it just is. The reader, armed with the knowledge of Dracula and other vampire stories knows this is how it has to be. Of course Neville is staking these creatures, it’s what we would do.

Finally, Matheson draws us in with the hauntingly intimate flashbacks of the last days of Virginia Neville, Robert’s wife, and shares with us the horror of her return from the grave. This, for me, is the scariest scene in the book:

“He couldn’t even scream. He just stood there rooted to the spot, staring dumbly at Virginia.

“Rob … ert,” she said” (77).

So the reader has no problem pulling for this poor lonely lost soul. We share his frustration in trying to figure it all out. We feel his loneliness and his isolation. Then Ruth shows up and Matheson turns everything over on the reader.

Ruth appears to be another normal human, another survivor. Neville is barely human when she arrives, so far gone in his patterns and his survival, he’s more robot than human, but he’s still more human than Ruth turns out to be.

The entire exchange between Ruth and Robert is wonderful, especially when read a second time with the knowledge of the ending. As a first read, the reader shares Neville’s confusion over why Ruth is horrified by his matter-of-fact description of his discoveries, experiments, and executions of the vampires. He is doing what anyone would do in this situation.

But after knowing the ending (which I won’t completely reveal here, I truly want all new readers to experience this for themselves), the exchanges between Ruth and Robert take on a completely different tone:

“Her throat moved and a shudder ran down through her.

“It’s horrible,” she said.

He looked at her in surprise. Horrible? Wasn’t that odd? He hadn’t thought that for years. For him the word horror had become obsolete. A surfeiting of terror soon made terror a cliché. To Robert Neville the situation merely existed as natural fact. It had no adjectives.

“And what about the … the ones who are still alive?” she asked.

“Well,” he said, “when you cut their wrists the germ naturally becomes parasitic. But mostly they die from simple hemorrhage.”

“Simple –“

She turned away quickly and her lips were pressed into a tight, thin line.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“N-nothing. Nothing,” she said” (145-146).

For the reader this is a no-nonsense description of a man dispatching monsters. To Ruth, a vampire, this is the butcher of her people describing how easy it is for him to execute her brothers and sisters. From Ruth’s perspective she is hearing a serial killer, a mass murderer explain how he commits murder, and how easy it is for him to do it.

This juxtaposition of motivation and point of view is powerful stuff. Both sides are correct here, both sides have skin in the game, have high stakes to play for, and the reader can see both sides of this conflict. That is excellent writing, excellent plotting, and just excellent story telling.

As was said in the opening of this essay, for some reason movies haven’t been able to capture the power and brilliance and simplicity of this story. The one that comes closest is The Omega Man but even it tries to end happy. The latest version, I am Legend is a fun little popcorn movie I would have enjoyed if they had called it Vampires in New York or Albino End or something else, anything else.

So, my parting thought is this: if you’ve only seen movie versions of this story, you haven’t experienced I am Legend. Books are usually better than their adaptations to screen and stage, but in this case it isn’t even close. The underlying story elements are completely absent.

I can’t recommend this story, in written form, highly enough. If you like your vampires creepy and scary, then this is your story.


  1. David, it's fun to read your journal and go back over some of the scenes, looking at them with the full understanding of the story. This was my first reading of I am Legend, and so I didn't understand the nuances of the lines on the first pass. Now that I know what happens, I'm struck by how deftly Matheson manages to make every action and reaction true to both what the reader thinks is happening, and to what is really happening. This is probably confusing, but I'm trying to stick with your plan to refrain from ruining anything for newbies like me. :) Being true and fair without being too obvious is a trick we all have to pull off sooner or later, and Matheson is a textbook example of how to do it well. Thanks for encouraging me to look at this bit again!

  2. "Both sides are correct here" <-- I'm actually going to debate that a bit and ask whether perhaps both sides are wrong here. :)

    If they are both right, would you say Matheson's message is that Neville can't really win, and neither can the vampires? Or is the time of the humans over, and Neville just needs to join them? Or are the vampires still the evil ones, just with larger numbers?

    I actually believe that both sides should have dropped their prejudice and reached out to one another. The vampires had a community and a plan; he had a possible answer to their suffering. They might have worked together and come to a peaceful agreement if it hadn't been for legends about the thing that comes to get you while you sleep. :)

    What do you think?

  3. Irene,

    For me the point of the story was the twist in perception. Neville thinks he's the good guy, so does the reader. The new world defines Neville not just as the bad guy, but as a monster, as the worst guy they can think of.

    If we got sociological or historical, humans tend to fight other humans when they meet for the first time and there are big cultural differences. If we want to look at it that way, then Neville (human) and the vampires (not-human) are responding with historic accuracy.

    This story, for me, would have lost a LOT of it's impact if Neville had accepted the new society and lived, and they had accepted him.

    Monsters should stay monsters in horror stories, and the level of acceptance you're talking about would have made this less a horror tale and into something else.

    And my statement "both sides are correct" of course has the opposite meaning of "both sides are also wrong" and it is in that gray area that the best conflict is born.

    Dave Johnston

  4. I hadn't thought about the movie other than to recall how I was a little bit bored and annoyed by it. But now that your post has me thinking on it, I recall how incredibly vivid the scenes of isolation were for the Neville in the I am Legend movie. They did at least nail that, updated for the times of course, by showing Neville sticking to his survival schedule but weaving in pretend conversations with mannequins.

    And they absolutely screwed the ending. Hardcore.

  5. Nicely done, Dave. It is definitely amazing how Matheson manages to tweak his readers' emotions by turning our hero on his head. It's hard to imagine yourself in Neville's shoes, in a world that's gone completely bonkers with Cortman outside yelling but even harder to imagine a world in which we, the survivors, simply don't fit in any longer. Can our world be flipped so completely? There's the real terror.

  6. Dave, you are absolutely right -- the story would have failed as a horror piece if the two sides had come to a peaceful agreement. I think you've hit on an important point, there: horror may present us with ethical dilemmas and social problems, but often it aims to show us what happens when people do things the wrong way. Would you agree? :)

  7. It's so true that Neville is the "Everyman" in this story. I know I was rooting for him along the way, and I loved it that he had to research the science and self-teach himself instead of already having a science background. I don't think it would have worked as well if Neville was something other than the "Everyman". The ending weighs heavier, in my opinion, because of this.


  8. Glad you liked it! Matheson is my all-time favorite modern writer. This story, in particular, was part of what made me into a writer. The single biggest influence on me was his "Hell House."

  9. I enjoyed your comments on the structure of this novel and how it played into the twist. You're right, the way Matheson pulls the reader in by focusing on Neville and then expands the view out really works. It helps you like the main character before you find out he's the monster. I wonder if this trick would work with another villain, if a writer could start by hooking the reader on a serial killer or something before pulling that viewpoint out to the general populous. It'd probably be really hard, but people love Dexter, so I guess it's all about the approach.