Sunday, December 23, 2007

"Why Should I Read...?"

I Am Legend
Richard Matheson, 1954

This month sees the release of the Will Smith film of the same name (which I haven't yet seen), and today "Why Should I Read...?" takes a look at Matheson's original novel, seemingly as influential today as on its release half a century ago.

I Am Legend is the story of Robert Neville, the last man on Earth--or at least in Southern California, which may be much the same thing--trying to survive in a world over-run by vampires created by a bacterial plague. Told through a tight third-person narrative, Matheson meticulously records Neville's disintegrating mental state. The horror--for this truly is a horror novel--lies in the banal everyday detail. Each evening Neville must return before sundown from his daily slaughter of vampires as they sleep, so that he can barricade himself indoors against their nightly assault.

What makes I Am Legend a brilliant novel, and not simply an intelligent character study, is the way Matheson steadily unpicks the reader's sympathy. Neville discovers that there are two different kinds of vampires, one of which is still "alive". This makes no difference to Neville's programme, which remains the extermination of as many vampires as he can find. Meanwhile, those plague victims still surviving with the bacillus inside them find a way to control its growth and attempt to rebuild their society. By the end of the novel, it is Neville who is the monster, the "legend" of the title. This gloomy ending is partly offset by Neville's recognition of both his inhumanity, and the fact that the new society has no choice but to destroy him.

I Am Legend is a beautifully realised study in paranoia, and for all its enduring popularity it is very much a novel of its time. It reflects and comments on the Cold War psychology of 1950s America, where it has far more in common with Finney's The Body Snatchers and Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz than it does with Dracula. Vampires are simply the mechanism Matheson uses to explore themes of paranoia and xenophobia--themes every bit as relevant in the 21st century as they were in the 1950s.

How has it influenced me?

The most striking technical characteristic of I Am Legend is the way Matheson steadily erodes sympathy for the protagonist. I've never tried this trick in this way, but one of the things I've tried to do in The Dog of the North is manipulate the reader's sympathy for Beauceron, one of the twin protagonists. His goals--revenge and the destruction of a great city--and his methods of achieving them--kidnap and brigandage--are essentially ignoble; but he is one of the viewpoint characters and I need the reader to identify with him on some level. In particular, I set out to manipulate the extent of their sympathy at specific points in the novel. The notion that I needed to do that owes a debt to I Am Legend.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

A novel which takes place largely inside the protagonist's head should not be too long (I Am Legend comes in at 160 pages)

A very close third person narrative is an effective way of at once keeping the reader close to the character but being able to manipulate sympathy

Manipulation of sympathy for the protagonist is one of the subtlest and most powerful tools in the writer's armoury

It's possible to write a satisfying novel in which the protagonist's psychological state is emphasised at the expense of more 'dramatic' plot elements

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