Vampires were trendy in 2012.  The fifth Twilight film was racking up more
than $800 million in box office receipts. And bloodsucker brand extensions
were coming out thick and fast. (My award for the most implausible film of
the year goes to
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.) Meanwhile, HBO was
serving up anemic episodes of
True Blood, and new vampire books were
flooding an already saturated market, with new volumes coming out in
Bloodlines series by Richelle Mead, The Hollows series by Kim Harrison,
Chicagoland Vampires series by Chloe Neill, and many other genre
brands with high red blood cell count. The "vampire teen romance" section
at Barnes &  Noble—which didn't even exist a few years before—was now a
favorite meeting place for the high school 'in' crowd.

The Horror Writers Association needed to jump on this
bandwagon, and decided to to give a special award for the
"Vampire Novel of the Century." Ah, but they bypassed
all these new upstarts, and other estimable candidates, in
order to honor a pulp fiction book that was almost sixty
years old: Richard Matheson's
I Am Legend (1954).

They made the right choice. After Bram Stoker’s
Matheson's work has been the most admired, and
influential, work in the category. Stephen King, the
bestselling horror writer of all time, has cited Matheson
in general, and
I Am Legend in particular, as a source of
inspiration. In King's word, Matheson was "the author
who influenced me the most as a writer." Horror author
Ramsey Campbell has noted that this single book was able to "revolutionize
vampirism." Even Anne Rice, who had hoped to win the 'best of century'
honor for her classic
Interview with the Vampire, admitted that it was hard
to complain about losing to an author "whose stories were inspiring me when
I was still a kid writing everything with a ballpoint pen in a school notebook."

The Scariest of Them All: A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Hell House by Richard Matheson
What Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson

Matheson was just as influential in the cinematic world. Director George
Romero has acknowledged
I Am Legend's influence on his cult classic The
Night of the Living Dead
. Steven Spielberg, who got his first big break
directing Matheson’s screenplay for
Duel (if you haven’t seen, put it on
your 'to do' list),  has praised the author’s storytelling brilliance, adding
"he is in the same category as Bradbury and Asimov." Orson Welles was
reportedly another admirer of
I Am Legend, and may have introduced
Charlton Heston (who later starred in a film adaptation) to the book.

Others have seen
I Am Legend as much more than genre thriller. Some
critics have praised Matheson for translating Cold War anxieties into the
context of horror fiction, or for making a thinly-veiled plea for racial
tolerance (the novel takes place in South Central LA, on the same streets
I frequented in my youth). Matheson’s book has also been
praised as a classic existential account of loneliness, in the mold of
Robinson Crusoe, and as anticipating the AIDS epidemic that would
arise a generation after the novel’s publication.

In fact, academics have now embrace
d I Am Legend as talisman of a host
of trendy theories and ideologies. The
2014 publication of Reading Richard
Matheson: A Critical Survey, edited by Cheyenne Matthews and Janet
, heralded the start of this new phase in the life of the vampire
book that just won't stay dead. Here you will find a Foucaultian reading
of Matheson's novel, and a post-colonial interpretation, along with other
ways of turning this sixty-year-old novel into something suitable for new
millennium scholars. And though the academic jargon is sometimes
disconcerting (
While the anomalous multitude germinates potentialities,
the novel shows that vampirism biopolitics absorbs difference...
), I have
to admit that some of these new perspectives add to the  resonance of the
book. There is, in the final analysis, more than a small degree of  overlap
between the respective themes of
Madness and  Civilization, Discipline
and Punish
 and I Am Legend.

True, not everyone has celebrated this book, and criticisms were
often pointed back in the early days afters its initial publication
. The
snarky Damon Knight claimed that "the plot limps" and that all
of Matheson's good ideas are discarded almost as soon as they appear. At
the time of its first release, a reviewer in Galaxy reproached the author for
his novel's slow pace. But the complaint about Matheson's book that struck
me as most credible came from an online reviewer who grumbled: “I had
a nightmare about this book last night. Not fun.”  

Matheson himself had a simple explanation for the book’s origins. After
seeing the movie
Dracula at age sixteen, he decided that if one vampire was
scary, even more terrifying might be an entire world filled with vampires. As
to other theories of the book’s hidden meaning, he responds: "I don't think
the book means anything more than it is: the story of a man trying to survive
in a world of vampires."

Matheson breaks many of the most basic rules of horror fiction in this work.
Although this novel initiated the craze for stories about a zombie apocalypse
—a plot that is more popular nowadays than ever before—he actually opens
the book after the decimation of the population. The zombie wars are
finished, and the human race has dwindled down to a sole individual, our
hero Robert Neville.  

Much of the book focuses on his day-to-day activities as a lonely survivor.
He plants garlic, and hangs garlands of it around his house. He boards
up windows and takes other steps to keep his home protected. During the day,
he hunts for sleeping vampires and hammers stakes through their hearts.
And occasionally he remembers the past, events he would prefer to forget.

Matheson deals with all these issues with a surprisingly light touch, focusing
on details that rarely come to the forefront of horror stories. The longest
chapter in
I Am Legend deals with Neville's attempt to befriend a stray dog,
the only familiar creature he has encountered in the three years since
society collapsed. Few genre writers would know what to do with a sub-plot
of this sort, but Matheson not only makes it emotionally riveting, but even
finds a way conclude the chapter with perhaps the most chilling moments in
the novel.

Matheson also finds time to insert two
romance angles into his book, and not
with the kind of awkward grafting we
usually find in genre stories. Both
love interests are integrated into the
larger plot, and amplify the horror of
proceedings. The moment when his
first wife, who died in the vampire
epidemic, returns to her grieving
husband, is one of the most memorable
passages in the novel. But here again,
Matheson refuses to handle this
encounter in the expected manner,
instead deftly presenting this story in
bits and pieces over the course of the
book, some aspects described in
flashback, others in dialogue or interior monologue.  

There is nothing flashy in this novel. Or in Matheson’s other books.
Matheson is a storyteller, not a prose stylist. He works with great economy,
and (as Damon Knight noted) often moves from scene to scene with
insistent forward motion. But he also knows when to linger—and almost
always because he sense an opportunity to amplify the emotional charge
of his tale. We see that here in the subplot about the dog, or the carefully
constructed adversarial relationship between Neville and Ben Cortman,
his former neighbor who is now the most deadly of the marauding vampires.

The book has filmed on several

occasions, but never with much
fidelity to Matheson’s original
vision. "I don't know why
Hollywood keeps coming
back to the book just to not

do it the way I wrote it," he
told an interviewer. "The book
should have been filmed as is
at the time it came out. It's too
late now." In fact, Matheson
wrote a script for Hammer Films
back in the 1950s—and at one
point director Fritz Lang was on
board to direct it. But the studio
ditched the project because they
anticipated problems with censors.

I believe this is Matheson’s best

work, and deserves a film rendition
that returns to his original vision.
But the author himself had a
different view. "They should just
stop trying," he said, when asked
about another movie version of
I Am Legend. "To me, vampires are totally passé anyway. They are
disgusting creatures who smell bad and are revolting in every way.
Turning female vampires into sexy creatures is absurd."

And, true, if you are seeking sexy vampires, you can skip Richard
Matheson's book. Or his other works, for that matter. But even his vampires
have redeeming qualities. Perhaps the most surprising twist, in book filled
with them, comes at the conclusion of
I Am Legend, when our hero realizes
how much he has in common with the evil creatures of the night he has been
battling since page one.

But don’t expect a novel of sort to end with a happy love fest or truce between
the undead and the living. That’s not Richard Matheson’s style. Instead you
will learn exactly what it takes to become a legend. And why that’s a fate—the
example of Mr. Matheson himself notwithstanding—you should try to avoid
at all costs.

Yet the future of this book may have less to do with happy endings, and more
with the various ways the text can be applied to theories of narrative and
cultural hegemonies.
I Am Legend may have spent its first half-century
as the great vampire novel, but in its new life it has turned into a classic text
of outsiders and victims, countercultures and marginalized communities.
I'm not sure that Richard Matheson would approve, but he didn't much
care for the movie versions and other 'straight' ways of interpreting his
horror story. For better or worse, he may have created a legend much
different from the one he anticipated.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His most recent book, Love Songs:
The Hidden History
, is published by Oxford University Press.

Publication Date: March 7. 2016

The Vampire Book
That Will Not Die

After 4 film adaptations and two generations
of readers, Richard Matheson's
I Am Legend
enters a new life as a talisman for academics
Essay by Ted Gioia
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
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Experimental works of mystery & suspense

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Radical, unconventional and
experimental fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson
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Abbott, Edwin A.

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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

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Barefoot in the Head

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Report on Probability A

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The House of the Spirits

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Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

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Time's Arrow

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The Foundation Trilogy

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I, Robot

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The Handmaid's Tale

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The Crystal World

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Magic for Beginners

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Hell House

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I Am Legend

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What Dreams May Come

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Lord of Light

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This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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Here you will find a
Foucaultian reading
of Matheson's novel,

and a post-colonial
interpretation, along

with other ways of
turning this 60-year-old
into something
suitable for new

millennium scholars...
Some of the covers of I Am Legend
To purchase, click on image