“I didn’t make any money from Night Of The Living Dead!” director George A Romero once said to Richard Matheson over lunch one day, raising his hands defensively.
In a way, Romero might have had good reason to be nervous: his seminal zombie horror flick, released in 1968, has much in common with Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, published 14 years earlier. Both take a traditional horror concept and add an element of sci-fi modernism; both are about an apparently planet-wide affliction, but tell their stories largely from a single, fixed location.
“I confessed to him that I basically ripped the [Night Of The Living Dead] idea off from I Am Legend,” Romero later told Entertainment Weekly. “He forgave me because we didn’t make any money.”
To be fair to Romero, Matheson’s influence ran far deeper than Night Of The Living Dead, even if that movie would have a profound impact on popular culture all by itself. Stephen King once wrote that, “Without Richard Matheson I wouldn’t be around” – and like Matheson, King was an author who successfully took horror out of the gothic and into the present.
It’s easy to see why I Am Legend would resonate with Romero, too. In essence, it’s a vampire novel – but one that side-steps castles and capes, and instead tells its story from the perspective of a former plant worker and renaissance man, Robert Neville. Matheson imagines a near future where vampirism has swept across the globe like a disease; like the creatures of legend (and Bram Stoker’s Dracula), they’re vulnerable to garlic, mirrors and crucifixes, yet the author comes up with clever, scientific explanations for each of them.
Neville, seemingly the only uninfected human left, fortifies his house with all the things the creatures loathe, and uses his scientific knowledge to come up with increasingly efficient ways of disposing of them. The protagonist’s greatest enemy, though, isn’t the army of monsters prowling around his house, but his own biting loneliness. Through Neville, Matheson compares the curious split in the human mind – the rational part that analyses a problem and attempts to solve it, and the irrational bit that, even in a situation where getting drunk can lead to a fatal mistake, still craves alcohol.
I Am Legend‘s most chilling moments involve Neville’s solitary lifestyle: his carefully-maintained routine, his meticulous research – and how it’s often undone by his drinking and his despair at what the world has become. People who were once friends and neighbours are now blood-craving ghouls; worse still, some of them actively goad him – their voices ring out at night, daring Neville to leave the safety of his house.
It’s a lean, intense novel, light on excessive gore but heavy on an overweening sense of dread. Maybe this is why, of the four movies based on Matheson’s book, none have quite nailed its tone; the first, The Last Man On Earth (1964), was faithful to a degree (right down to a neat twist on the blood-chilling conclusion), but Vincent Price’s brooding lead performance was undercut by its threadbare budget. The Omega Man (1971) bizarrely changed the vampires to an albino cult; 2007’s I Am Legend started off well, but then its CGI ghouls emerged, and the tension ebbed. (The less said about the cash-in quickie, I Am Omega, the better.)
If you want a pure, uncut jolt of creeping horror, you have to head back to the source novel, and the Folio Society’s new hardcover edition, illustrated by David McKeane, is arguably the most handsome-looking we’ve laid eyes on. With a sickly green face gazing out from the hardcover, through the die-cut holes in the cardboard slipcase, it’s certainly a far cry from the cheaply-produced paperback edition that first carried Matheson’s words way back in 1954.
Open up the book, and McKean’s macabre, smeary illustrations provide a fitting accompaniment for the prose: here’s Robert Neville in silhouette, venturing outside with only a claw hammer for protection. Here’s Neville poring over books in a library, struggling to find a cure for the pandemic. Shadowy and ambiguous, they reflect the hero’s increasingly threadbare mental state; in some, it isn’t immediately clear whether what we’re looking at is a person or a monster – which is, of course, precisely the point of Matheson’s story.
If, like this writer, you already own a well-thumbed paperback of I Am Legend, this deluxe edition is a worthy upgrade. Made with the Folio Society’s usual quality binding and eye for detail, it’s a handsome reprint of one of the late 20th century’s pivotal genre novels. Although it may have been viewed as just another bit of disposable pulp literature in 1954, its stature has only grown in the decades since.
As the writer Joe Hill points out in his introduction, “Matheson’s vampire army has become a reality, and that army is us…”
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.