Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Like my wife Lydia (who also posts reviews), I tend to approach reviews from the perspective of both reader and writer.

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson was an interesting read. I will come right out and say I liked the Will Smith movie better. It was obviously more intense. Incidentally, that was the most recent of three film adaptations.

The book was mildly disappointing...from a reader's perspective. I'm still going to insist on it being a must read, especially for writers. It really is a marvelously weaved bit of storytelling with excellent writing.

Therein lies the conundrum. I don't pull novels off the shelf to learn technique. I like to be entertained. I hate when my inner editor chimes in when I'm reading a new book.

"Do you see what David Drake did there?"

"Yeah, dude shot an alien in the chest and then stabbed the other alien in the eyeball. Go away and let me read."

Okay, schizophrenic leanings aside, on with the review. Yeah, I know, finally.

Bearing in mind the book was written in the '50s, I was a little surprised by how much the MC wanted to get it on with the female monsters (in the book, they're vampires, which is different from the vampirish/zombie-ish/too-many-days-in-a-tanning-bedish freaks in the movie) beating on his door every night.

The stories are very dissimilar between the movie and the book, by the way. There is a dog in both, a barricaded house, non-human former humans, and that's about it.

Matheson was indeed born a gifted writer. Also, he looked like a nerdy Willie Nelson. Look at his picture. I dare you to argue.

He takes the mundane and makes you read it. You're not enthralled, but he makes every scene seem like it's setting up something bigger. Sometimes, though, they were just mundane scenes.

As a writer, Matheson was a ground breaker. An amazing number of his novels went on to become movies. With I Am Legend specifically, he brought the non-spiritistic vampire to the mainstream, and also the shock ending.

This is where he lost me as a reader. You sit, reading and wondering how it's all going to turn out, and then after a plot twist that explodes out of nowhere, it all crashes into an abrupt shock ending. I found it unsatisfying and didn't like it.

It is within that shock ending, though, that we can all learn a thing or two about writing. Namely his last line: I am legend.

The most recent Writer's Digest had an article on titles. It said using the first or last line as the title is a no-no. Matheson completely kicks the teeth out of that theory.

Once you read that line, you take a pensive look back at the rest of the story. You realize how all of those mundane things the MC was doing made him a legend. He couldn't have titled it anything else.

Matheson totally set you up for something huge, then let you down, then made you go, "Dude! That was brilliant!". Like the fireworks scene in Coneheads.

I'm laying even money all comments (if any) on this post will be about Coneheads. Someone's going to mention the high dive, then the golf club scene, consume mass quantities...

In short (haha, Joe, too late for THAT!), the ending comes so quick after the whirlwind plot twist, it's a little irritating. But his closing sentence is quite possibly one of most profound endings in modern literature. Like Ali's "anchor punch" on Liston in '64, it was short, came out of nowhere, and didn't look like much, but it still rocked an ending.



Lydia Sharp said...

I love your reviews. ;) Almost as entertaining as your stories. Almost.

This one is still on my yet-2-B-read list.

hamilcar barca said...

the biggest irritation for me was that of the 250 pages in the book i bought titled "I Am Legend" (with Will Smith on the cover, no less), the actual I Am Legend story took up less than half of them.

you're spot-on about the shortcomings of the book. i think that, like Andre Norton sci-fi, it has to be judged in its own time-period. the field as a whole has evolved tremendously since the 1950's. but it truly was groundbreaking for its time.

absentchaos said...

As a student of literature, I feel guilty for not being able to enjoy this book more. I read it years before the Will Smith movie was being created, and barely got through it. I recognize that literature from different time periods has to be considered differently than contemporary works. So despite the fact that I recognized that it's a brilliant piece of work (from a writer's perspective), I hated it (from a modern reader's perspective).

stacy said...

I actually loved the written story (although there were a few in that collection of short stories I liked better), and couldn't get through the movie. I guess it boils down to taste.

Another story that blows that WD rule out of the water is Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." It's the last line of the story. Actually, I see that rule broken all the time.

Erich said...

Okay I'm a pretty normal guy with terrible grammer but when I picked up this book I finished it in one sitting. I hated the ending and how the book ended around 170 pgs and than went into stupid short stories. Everything was build up with no pay off in my mind. He just gave in to those half breeds in the end nothing good ever happens to him an it goes from 1 year to 3 years it seems in one page. This book kept me reading only to piss me off over and over. Everything he does is pointless and he never does start killing them in ultra violet light or amp up security or get laid. Nothing good happens and he never does much of anything. I want to strangle the author I'm glad I stole this from barnes and nobles instead of buying it. I'm angry erich. I feel tricked that it just with a bunch of pgs left over with stupid short stories. god damn i hate this author now