Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Tales From The Discount Bin: Richard Matheson Edition: I Am Legend & Various Short Stories

This past week I rectified a hideous error, and filled a gaping hole in my pop culture knowledge by reading Richard Matheson's famous I Am Legend, along with a handful of his short stories. Previously my only exposure to Matheson was through the numerous films made from his work(which include three versions of I Am Legend and some of the most famous Twilight Zone episodes), and quite recently I picked up a copy of The Shrinking Man, partly because the movie has long been a favorite, and partly because the cover showed a man fighting a giant spider. And that's always awesome.

Reading the book was interesting, because, as my friend Rik pointed out, none of the film versions thus far have come anywhere near the apocalyptic excellence of the originals ending. I looked forward to a completely shattering, shocking finale. But, despite the fact that three films have thus far changed the outcome, the novel was still not as surprising to me as I expected it to be. That's the problem with immersing yourself into so much pop culture; eventually this stuff just seeps in by osmosis. I think, however, that if I had read this story fresh, without having seen any of the films, I would have been flabbergasted at that finale. Don't get me wrong, it's a killer ending, but the shock of it was ruined for me some time ago.

Reading the short stories so quickly after I Am Legend was illuminating, and helped me put my finger on what it is about I Am Legend, and Richard Matheson in general, that just doesn't jibe with me. As an author he's very dry, and spends more time focusing on the day to day mundanity of his character's lives than he does on the horror aspects. There's a section in I Am Legend where Neville spots a wild dog who has somehow survived both the plague and the scavenging vampires. For 18 pages he woos and entices the dog into his home, desperate for companionship, and we're given long accounts of him watching patiently as the dog eats food he's left out for it. Then, after grabbing the dog, we're given this sudden sentence; 'a week later, the dog was dead.' This is something Matheson does a lot; he spends all his time on the buildup, and then gives us a premature and almost incomplete finish. For the most part, that alone doesn't bother me. I enjoy the sense of how even the most horrific circumstances can become not only bearable, but boring, only to be punctuated by sudden, often senseless tragedy. My real problem comes in how far he takes it.

I've come to the conclusion that Matheson is that rare horror author who really doesn't believe in any of that supernatural hogwash. He repeatedly takes great measures to explain in scientific terms the reason for the apparently supernatural events. In The Shrinking Man I wrote off his psuedo-scientific explanation as an unfortunate necessity, because in the end the science made no sense and was unsatisfying, but I imagine Matheson probably felt pressured to explain things at least a little bit. In I Am Legend it's a little harder to ignore. I really dig the idea that Neville, an intelligent but not highly educated man, has so much time on his hands that he decides to study infectious diseases and try and discover the cause, and maybe cure, of vampirism. For the most part these experiments make sense and serve the story. The germ causes a severe reaction to sunlight and garlic(although only when smelled, not when injected, for some reason I don't think holds water), increases skin resiliency, so bullets wont pierce the skin but a strong blow from a wooden stake will. Other parts of the Vampire myth don't hold up; running water won't stop a Vampire, and a cross will only cause a psychosomatic response in Vampires who were once Christian or Catholic. A lot of this was pretty interesting, but after awhile I got tired and hoped that Matheson would shift the focus, since the scientific exploration eventually became redundant.

Perhaps more extreme an example would be Mad House, my favorite of the short stories I've read so far. It's a pretty unique take on the whole haunted house idea, with a man caught in a sort of feedback loop where the house has gained enough sentience to enrage the main character(by giving him splinters whenever he touches wood, or having rugs slip out from under his foot), and that man's rage in turn feeding the power of the house. This is all pretty evident by the story itself, and yet Matheson includes a scene where a scientist friend of the main character explains his theory about the house, and that it may be some aspect of science that they don't yet fully understand. He goes on a bit about physics and atoms, and it doesn't really explain anything concretely, but it serves Matheson's habit of making the horror more scientific than supernatural.

Most of the short stories he's written don't really do much for me, or at least not as much as his novels have(so far). They seem more like writing exercises than actual works of art. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and a lot of the stories are entertaining precisely due to the way he chooses to write them. The story Dance of the Dead is written as a story from the future, with little dictionary excerpts to define some of the unfamiliar slang, Witch War has a shifting focus of narrator that's a bit more subtle than most, and Dress Of White Silk is written from the point of view of a little girl around 8 years old(I assume) who's done something horrid that isn't quite explained. And that in itself is another major problem I have with Matheson; despite his long passages of scientific explanation, he never really explains anything at all. In his novels I actually really enjoy that. He gives just enough information that you can start to piece things together on your own, but not enough that he spells it out for you. But in his short fiction you're more often than not left with the impression that SOMETHING has happened, but you really couldn't say what it was.

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