Monday, December 1, 2008

Richard Matheson's I Am Legend

Richard Matheson's I Am Legend

If you haven't read this brilliant short novel written in 1954--and especially if you have seen the most recent film "version" (in scare quotes for a reason, from what my daughter tells me)--I strongly recommend that you go find it and read it.

Matheson is not just a great storyteller, but a great writer as well. (The two don't always go together, unfortunately.) Matheson took the supernatural idea of vampirism and turned it into science fiction. Our hero tries to unravel what has happened around him, and finds scientific explanations for all the apparently supernatural phenomena--an interesting idea. Unfortunately, the 1964 black and white film version, The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price, emphasized the horror, and almost lost sight of what made I Am Legend so unique--its scientific rationalism. The 1971 version, The Omega Man, starring Charleton Heston, seems to have gone too far the other direction--almost missing the point of Matheson's novel.

I haven't read I Am Legend since I was in junior high or high school, and I found myself reading it again at my daughter's urging. (We share surprisingly common tastes in fiction.) I was surprised at how much I remembered, and how much I had forgotten. One aspect that I had completely forgotten was the parallel that Matheson drew between vampires and an oppressed minority group--clearly intended as irony. What made this so interesting to me was the Canadian TV series of the early 1990s, Forever Knight.

I don't know how many of you saw this show, but it was really well done. What I found so interesting about the show was that there were similar parallels between the vampires in Forever Knight and another minority group--parallels so strong that I found myself convinced that the writers were making that parallel intentionally.

1. The vampires congregated in vampire bars. You wouldn't necessarily know it was a vampire bar if you were one of the living, but you would certainly feel uncomfortable--and you probably wouldn't come back (unless someone decided that you were worth snacking on, and thus converting you).

2. Vampires, of course, kept their preferences to themselves.

3. The undead were sexually more active and promiscuous than the living--and there was a clear connection between being undead and erotica.

4. Many of the undead were quite wealthy, since they had centuries to accumulate wealth, and were incapable of having children.

5. Once victimized by a vampire, one became a member of the undead. They were convinced that they had no hope of returning--except for our hero, the undead Canadian cop, who throughout the series is undergoing transformation therapy in the hopes of becoming either living again, or at least, of having a real death leading to a vaguely Christian afterlife--unlike what the vampires face: an eternity of hell.

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