Monday, 14 February 2011

#6 I Am Legend: Writing About Monsters

Yes, I made it back from London. It was a close run thing. In the tube stations it was hard to tell who was human and who was zombie, so I just swung my cricket bat at anything that moved until I made it to the exits. Ended up holing up in a pub called the Camden Head, where, as luck would have it, they were holding an evening of poetry, comedy and spoken word entertainment (I assume because the TV was no longer broadcasting). I won’t bore you with the details of my perilous trek back to Norwich, where somehow civilisation is managing to continue pretty much unaffected. All I’ll say is that on the coach trip I was able to enjoy rereading the excellent novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. It’s a novel about the last human being, fortified in his own home, desperately fighting off hordes of vampires.
So, spoiler alert. No, seriously, spoiler alert. If you have any plans whatsoever to read this book, do it before reading this article because I am going to give away the ending, and it’s of the Planet of the Apes is Earth/Bruce Willis is a ghost order of spoilers. The book is only 160 pages long, you could easily finish it in a weekend, so go away and come back when you’ve read it. You’ll thank me.
I’m sure some of you are saying “Chris, don’t worry about it! I’ve already seen the film starring Will Smith!” and to those people I shall politely suggest that you read the book anyway, while quietly damning the creators of that film to the circle of hell reserved for People Who Completely Miss The Point.
Go read the book. I’ll wait.
Have you read it yet? Good. No, it’s okay, no need to thank me. Yes, I’m sure Will Smith is very sorry too.
So, I’ll be honest, this is going to be a hard one to blog. There’s a tonne of things I want to talk about with this book: The way it sets up a whole genre and subverts it at the same time, the difference between Horror Fiction and Science Fiction and how zombie fiction in general, and I Am Legend especially, nestle in the crack between the two, why there are some books you really ought to read twice.
Let’s start by talking about horror and science fiction, because nothing is as worthwhile as arguing about genre definitions. Someone (I can’t remember exactly who and Google is letting me down) once described Night of the Living Dead as a science fiction movie disguised as a horror movie. I’ve already mentioned that George A. Romero nicked the idea for Night of the Living Dead from this novel and the sci-fi passing as horror quote applies just as well to this book. The monsters are vampires with pointy teeth who come by night to suck your blood, but have a dread fear of garlic and the cross (or Torah if it’s a Jew vampire), they are creatures straight out of the Bram Stoker tradition.
Yes. Once again the Atheists have doomed us all.
But Robert Neville, now that there is no one left to make fun of his name, systematically goes through everything we know about the vampire, the sucking blood, the aversion to sunlight, even the magically turning to dust when staked, and finds rational explanations with a microscope and a supply of text books.
I could totally become a self-taught bacteriologist if everyone else would just die!
My argument for I Am Legend as sci-fi in horror clothing comes from elsewhere though (although the chapters devoted to describing bacilli and spores certainly help- it’s better than it sounds). In his musing on the horror genre, Danse Macabre, Stephen King describe the horror genre as a “Republican in a three-button suit”. Sure, the conservative has a werewolf-life second identity, scratch the skin and there’s a monster underneath, but really, the monster is there to show us what a monster isn’t. Horror shows us strange and terrible things to that we know what normal is, and it’s not a huge coincidence that most of the time those strange terrible things happen to be about sex.
I would argue, probably with a pint in my hand and at a volume slightly above what the other pub goers are comfortable with, that science fiction does the opposite of this. From Star Trek, to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, to my own book that I’ve just remembered I haven’t plugged for several weeks, science fiction is a genre that tells you that your definitions of right and wrong are an arbitrary line in the sand, your universal truths are provincial custom and your sense of what’s important comes mostly from a lack of perspective.
At first glance zombies, and the vampires of I Am Legend, seem like the perfect horror villain. There’s a reason why they’re such popular enemies in videogames, and it’s not just that zombies don’t need that much in the way of AI (Turns out, they do). It’s that, even more so than Nazis and aliens, you can mow down hundreds of zombies without hesitation or remorse. In virtually every zombie movie, including the ones we’ve looked at so far, hesitation to smash in zombie brains is seen as at best, not understanding the gravity of the situation, and at worst dangerously irresponsible.
I Am Legend is no different. He spends the first few chapters of the book sharpening stakes to hunt the sleeping vamps by day while they sleep.  By the end of the book hunting for Cortman, one of the more persistent vampires, is Neville’s “relaxing hobby”. The necessity of killing off the vampires is never questioned, although at one point early on, when Neville is still experimenting to work out the “rules” for these vampires, he reluctantly asks himself why he always does his tests on women. Because when you’re the last living human being there’s nobody to stop you being a creepmeister.
Then he meets Ruth, another survivor (Or Is She?) and suddenly after three years Neville lives in a world where there are opinions other than his own. One of things that shocks him most about this girl (Who he absolutely does not want to sleep with at all, no sirree) is her response to his clinical and emotionless descriptions of killing the vampires. He’s surprised when she describes it as horrible, but dismisses it like a true zombie survivalist with “One gets used to these things”. He’s incredulous when he finally brings himself to ask “Do you think I’m wrong?”
Of course (and I’m saying of course because you followed my warning at the beginning of this blog, and read the book, and so this entry will hold no surprises for you) it turns out that the vampires aren’t quite the soulless stake-fodder they’ve been made out to be. While the reanimated dead are fair game, Neville has also been killing living people who have been infected by, but not yet succumbed, to the vampire disease. To those infected survivors it Neville who is the nightmarish monster, coming like a vampire and taking them as they sleep through the day. So, like the vampire, Robert Neville becomes legend.
Oh? You thought it was because he blew himself up with a hand grenade? Well, that’s poetic too... I guess...
At the climax of the book, as the infected survivors slaughter the vampires as they fight their way to Neville’s house, Neville sees them through the eyes of a monster. He is appalled by the casual brutality and violence they inflict on the vampires, and is heartbroken when they finally kill Ben Cortman. But Ruth reminds him, “Did you ever see your face when you killed?”
This is what makes I Am Legend a science fiction novel, rather than a horror. In science fiction, when the horde of monsters finally get hold of you, they crowd around and shout “Look! There’s the monster!” When the toothy, many eyed abomination comes face to face with you, it says “You look gross.”
I Am Legend is a subversion and a commentary of the horror fiction that came before it, and in even more effective commentary on the genre it inspired. But for what it’s worth, I think this novel’s sympathy for the monster is something that has passed right through the DNA of the zombie apocalypse. Romero made his movie after reading I Am Legend as a book where: “There’s this global change and there’s one guy holding out saying, wait a minute, I’m still a human. He’s wrong. Go ahead. Join them.” Through all Romero’s movies, and his many imitators, you’ll find at least a little sympathy for the zombie, and see the survivors becoming something a little bit less than human.
It’s Valentine’s Day, so eat a heart-shaped liqueur chocolate for each of these. Because nothing says romance like gorging yourself while reading something on the Internet.
The characters spend most of the story under siege in some manner of building, eat a chocolate. The people coming to rescue you are more dangerous than the zombies? Well, they’re not really coming to rescue you- eat a chocolate.  Mankind is definitely the real monster, eat a chocolate, hell, take two. The zombies are walking dead (One chocolate) but that’s the only Romero rules chocolate you get for obvious reasons. Oh, and the monsters are never referred to as zombies, on account of how they’re vampires, so take two chocolates for that.
Until next week, you’re ALL legend.

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