Review: Richard Matheson’s I am Legend

4.5/5 stars

I’ve heard so much about this book that I finally decided to check it out and was very pleased and thankful I did.

I am Legend is a quick read-a well-paced novella that can be consumed in an evening. The tale is part horror, science fiction, and, thankfully, ample portions masterpiece. I found the story competently written and styled, with simple, smooth prose, highlighted by thought-provoking social commentary that still resonates today. So too, many of the other short tales in this collection are well-rendered and conceived.

Though the name is often overshadowed by others, Matheson is a godfather of horror. Many of his formative Twilight Zone work has been a cornerstone of weird fiction/ horror for half a century and a definitive component of the depiction of post-WWII/Cold War societal phobias. He wrote many stories for television, including the classic Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, probably one of the best the series had to offer.

I know I often have trouble getting into some older stuff, not so much for the antiquated world-views or conceptions, but more or less for the flowery or dated language or meandering prose. Not so with Matheson, who has a sort of stripped down, yet viable writing style that evokes a bit of Hemingway.

Matheson expertly gives us a restrained amount of back-history, doesn’t bog down in too many details, and clips the story along at an ardent pace. Meanwhile, he manages to build a sense of loneliness, frustration, futility and despair that burgeons on cosmic horror motifs.

I can see how some of his vaguery and piecemeal revelations could disenfranchise quick-fix urges of modern tastes. I also understand the preclusions of some fans of the genre as a whole tend to demand details ad nauseum and a minutia of itemized specifics. I’d also concede, some of the science comes off as herky-jerky and glossed-over but not in a way that ever detracts from the narrative.

Thankfully, like any solid story, the characterization and core motivations of our protagonist are the main focus of I am Legend. What’s even better is Matheson’s themes are still relevant today and never break down to twisted self-depraved gore-fantasies the way that much of the genre does these days.

Not so ironically, there is a cinematic quality to the work, despite Hollywood’s reluctance to commit to a version that captures the actual meat of the original narrative. It’s a shame none of the several attempts to chronical this tale on the silver or small screen have hit home.

For some new readers who jump into this kind of stuff without the context of what this story meant to the genre, I can see why they would find something like I am Legend uneventful and form knee- jerk reactions as to its “worth” in a sea of product. Without rehashing the history of the zombie (or Vampire), this work still has an important place in the evolution of monsters and horror that is an undeniable component of the story’s so-called “worth”. This cannot be separated from the total evaluation of the work.

Today we are adrift in apoca-everything, vampire-zombie-redux and post-apocalyptic flavored soda; from Walking Dead, to Mad Max, to Powers Booth rocking By the Dawn’s Early Light , to Fallout, Resident Evil and a litany of video games, we’ve been loaded up on this topic with no signs of slowing down. In books, film and within any number of media, the “end of the world” genre has been done to death, revived, and is still welcome to shamble around.

I am Legend, however, was written before zombies or blood suckers were such a clichéd sloppy mess. Before Romero, before Milla Jovavich jump kicked zombie-Dobermans, before Kirkman… before the rest of the diluted slop we have today. I think it’s important to soak in those impressions and assess them within the framework of a broader scope of time, not to get hung up on the self-righteous morals or jingoistic evaluations of different eras. With that in mind, I think we find a largely universal appeal to this tale.

(Matheson actually includes another fairly original zombie story within this particular volume)

Many of the short stories relay a quality that furthers this formative development of modern horror; short ditties with shocker endings akin to old Twilight Zone episodes, in other words user-friendly tales that translate to quick and satisfying societal jabs.

My favorite of the short stories here was Prey, which was a masterpiece of a pre-slasher prototype and harbinger of a sort of “Chuckie” meets mythology vibe that is way ahead of its time. This is clearly horror that had an enormous influence on what came in the decades following the publication of these tales. To be sure, like any short story collection, there are a few misses within, and not all of the subsequent shorts are worth a read.

All in all, this edition of I am Legend and Other Stories is highly recommended and approved, a cornerstone of any writer or horror fan alike.

A brief mention of the relation of the movie(s); in my opinion, the most recent film was decent, albeit soulless and forgettable on its own merit. The creators of that work managed to take something (Matheson’s tale) with a unique vision and ham-fist it into a fairly run of the mill zombie film. In the process, core motivations were lost, deftly rendered mood and the basic themes were cast aside. The real crime, however, was the loss of Matheson’s ending, and thus a central aspect that caps the profundity of the tale is also sacrificed. The result is “yet another” middling summer popcorn Zombie film, when in, fact, the source material was so much more.

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