When you decide to read I Am Legend it’s great to have a bit of historical perspective of a literary persuasion which aids in lifting this novel from a generic genre piece into a ‘classic‘ genre piece, and with that in mind, you discover that Matheson deserves all the adoration and praise for such a truly original and thought provoking book. Matheson wrote I Am Legend his unique take on the Gothic vampire tale at a time when the literary landscape around vampire novels had Bram Stokers Dracula as it’s only real effective vampire novel – not anything like the over-saturated market that we see today, everyone and their aunt has a vampiric novel their working on, but with all respect only serve in cheapening and trivialising the dark and horrific violence associated with this genre, filling that void with romance and enduring love stories and smouldering looks.
I Am Legend although classified as a vampire book, doesn’t stick too closely to this cliché or the elements that are laid out in previous vampiric novels. The book itself is a small slice of brilliance, coming in at more of a novella length and it’s true what they say, the best things come in small packages. I Am Legend has been given a beautiful makeover by The Folio Society – slip case included it is a thing of remarkable beauty, with tremendous artwork, which haunts, delights and showcases Matheson’s work in such a visceral way, adding a new dimension to an already captivating book.
Illustration by Dave McKean from The Folio Society edition of I Am Legend ©2018 Dave McKean
Matheson’s ability as a writer helps to elevate I Am Legend from a straight out vampire novel, enabling him to transcend the genre, brushing aside the conventions and clichés that are commonly associated with this type of genre writing and in taking this bold stance he creates a new kind of monster. With I Am Legend and some of his other works it is easy to see that his writing straddles many genres, his works obstinately refusing to be categorised by one specific genre and in doing so he creates his own genres / sub-genres.
I am a huge fan of apocalyptic fiction and I Am Legend doesn’t disappoint. The novel opens and introduces us to our protagonist Robert Neville, who we soon discover is the last man left on Earth in the year 1976; Matheson defty painting a near future for the books audience back in 1954 when it was first published. Matheson through a flashback told from Robert, alludes to some sort of war / epidemic / disease that has quite literally wiped out the human race, people are either dead or have been turned into the soulless and sinister beings that lurk in the shadows, that hide in wait…these undead vermin that scavenge the land after dark looking for sustenance, some might even call them vampires. The exception to the rule though is Robert, we journey with him as he strives to survive, exploring the world around him and following him as he tries to discover why he is the only human left standing and follow him through his daily routines and adventures to exterminate those that remain.
I Am Legend is also, a fascinating grim study of the human condition; what happens to someone when they find out they are the last person on earth? Matheson wields this aspect of his story like a sledgehammer, ramping up the tension, horror and isolation of the piece. Matheson gives Robert Neville no other human interaction or anyone to play off in I Am Legend which was a bold and daring choice – but what a choice it was. We get to see how lonely he is, get to venture into the dark recesses of his mind.
Matheson’s writing has a strange effect on its readers, with such a huge landscape for Robert Neville to explore, being so sparse of human interaction; the writing and events that happen create a claustrophobic and suffocating sensation. Robert is an angry man, a bitter man complaining and shouting about his circumstances, he’s also a high functioning alcoholic (we forgive him; what else is there to fill his time with) all of these character traits help feed the distress of the novel and give it the readability which is why it has become a classic.
Matheson also excels in the suggestive nature of his writing, with Robert Neville being confined to his small home, we also get to peer into the maddening storm of his self confinement and what this does to his already fragile state of mind. His heavy drinking, paranoia and depression are at times painful to read – making me muse ‘How would I be if I were in his position‘. He is also coming to terms with the shift of the human race as no longer being the dominate species, this aspect is dealt with great mastery by Matheson and is reminiscent of some other fabulous authors such as HG Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds‘ and John Wyndham’s ‘The Day of the Triffids‘ – we are no longer the top of the foodchain!
This small but fabulous novel packs one hell of a punch and has a sledgehammer of a conclusion – make sure you are sitting down!
Also with a fabulous introduction written by none other than Joe Hill. Through Hill’s wonderfully crafted introduction we get a sense of how important this book is, in the time it was written and the legacy that it has left behind. Even Hill’s detailed introduction serves in adding another dimension and even more gloss to this already spellbindingly beautiful edition of I Am Legend.
Illustration by Dave McKean from The Folio Society edition of I Am Legend ©2018 Dave McKean
I Am Legend gives licence for Dave McKean to be Dave McKean, who is in my opinion one of the greatest illustrators alive; his artwork is flawless, reinventing himself time and time again, but keeping it so very Dave McKean. You may recognise his work as he partners up with Neil Gaiman quite often and has also illustrated The Folio Society Edition of ‘American Gods‘ which is a beauty to behold…we also reviewed this last year so check it out in the search bar.
The bleakness of I Am Legend lends itself beautifully to McKean and his visceral stylised work, who turns in some truly beautifully pieces of art for this edition. His artwork is hard to pinpoint in this edition, he has shown some variety to his work, including some comic book style graphics, artwork that has a fairly morbid and urban colour scheme which again works seamlessly with the written content, with some of the illustrations having small flecks making the images really pop, is this a small hint at the themes of the book, blood, bloodlust, undead vampiric souls…whatever it is we like it!
The illustrations I found very reminiscent of early 20th Century German artwork, such as Otto Dix, incorporating the dark, macabre and gothic elements of the book into fabulously manicured compositions of apocalyptic beauty. His artwork also had me reminiscing about the painted (portrait) works of Giacometti, in his choice of colour scheme, brushwork and composition.
The book has a meticulous level of detail even down to the cut sleeve that accompanies The Folio Society Edition. It has something of an eerie, macabre beauty to it as you look longingly at the sleeve only to notice what is staring right back at you.
This is a book you need to purchase to enjoy it in all its splendid gory…sorry glory!
The Folio Society Edition of I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, introduced by Joe Hill and Illustrated by Dave McKean, is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com
If you would like to know more about the illustrations and the artist Dave McKean – watch this video below about his creative process and the artwork of I Am Legend.
Richard Burton Matheson (February 20, 1926 – June 23, 2013) was an American author and screenwriter, primarily in the fantasy, horror, and science fiction genres. He is best known as the author of I Am Legend, a 1954 science fiction horror vampire novel that has been adapted for the screen four times, as well as the movie Somewhere In Time for which Matheson wrote the screenplay, based on his novel Bid Time Return. Matheson also wrote 16 television episodes of The Twilight Zone, including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “Steel”.
He adapted his 1971 short story “Duel” as a screenplay directed by a young Steven Spielberg, for the television film of the same name that year.
Six more of his novels or short stories have been adapted as major motion pictures — The Shrinking Man, Hell House, What Dreams May Come, Bid Time Return (filmed as Somewhere in Time), A Stir of Echoes and Button, Button. Lesser movies based on his work include two from his early noir novels — Cold Sweat, based on his novel Riding the Nightmare, and Les seins de glace (Icy Breasts), based on his novel Someone is Bleeding.
Reviewed by Ross Jeffery
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