Sunday, December 7, 2008

I Am Legend Displays a Contortionist’s Grace

Works created with the intent of bending genres can prove instructive, if not uniformly entertaining. Some never manage to overcome inherent tensions and break apart. Others end up squiggly and shapeless, more exercises in frustration than anything else. Still others try to twist together wildly divergent ideas, the pieces never quite meeting no matter how hard the author tries. Then there are narratives -- rare and wonderful ones -- that shift from element to element so easily you wonder why no one has tried their particular combination before. Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is one of these.

Robert Neville is the sole survivor of a plague that killed his wife and daughter, the inhabitants of the city where he lives, and (as far as he knows) the world’s entire population. By day he scavenges, digging up necessities such as food and water and wooden dowelling. Mirrors, too, if he can get them, and garlic. Because while might be the last man alive, he is not the last man on earth. When darkness falls, the plague’s victims come out, transformed into viscous, blood-drinking vampires by … By what, exactly? Neville doesn’t know, but he’ll do everything in his power to find out.

Post-apocalyptic, horror, hard SF and myth -- there’s genre divergence if ever you saw it. But Matheson twines them into a single story with a contortionist’s grace, leveraging commonalities to make the styles meet. Anyone who has experienced a catastrophe of some kind knows that such things hold hands with horror. And melding science and superstition isn’t too much of a stretch, either. Indeed, Matheson’s naturalistic re-imagining of vampirism is one of the novel’s high points. The same can’t be said for its dour ending. While downbeat conclusions are fine and good in their place, the close of Neville’s struggles strips them of significance through no fault of his own. A disappointing turn on an otherwise excellent piece.

(Picture: CC 2008 by
Stinkie Pinkie )

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