I started writing this drunk and finished it hung over. Welcome back, Seton Hill.
What am I talking about? Zombies? Vampires? A'ight.
So I was talking to one of my asshole hipster friends and we were lamenting the fact that nobody who is into pop culture seems to look at the roots of the things that they love. Nobody watches Casablanca or Citizen Kane or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or The Searchers unless they're forced to for film class.
Reading I Am Legend felt like going back to the roots of the whole zombie thing.
Okay, yeah, they're vampires. But the narrative is the same as a zombie story. Lone survivor, desperate circumstances, scrounging for what he needs to get by, and surviving on good old libertarian work ethics (he can maintain generators AND grow garlic AND fix cars AND fight monsters? Man, my ass would be dead in a minute.) Almost all zombie books are siege books and Robert Neville is clearly a man living under constant threat. The book opens with him checking the damage from the night before, repairing busted generator parts, and harvesting garlic from his greenhouse. We don't get the sense that the creatures hounding him are human, but Matheson is coy with the details. Rereading the book, I'm struck how Matheson did himself a disservice by sticking too close to the whole vampire thing. He seems like he's on the verge of creating a brand new monster, but he loses traction trying to fit all the classic vampire details into his narrative. When Romero took this story and made Night of the Living Dead, he was taking the story to the next natural level.
Where Matheson stumbles on the monsters, the construction of the story is brilliant. Zombie stories are actually really hard to pull off. They're siege stories, they're nihilistic, and they only end one of two ways: the heroes either find sanctuary or they get got. The situation isn't helped by the fact that modern creators have eschewed post-apocalyptic survivalist stories for rugged American high-octane machine gun power fantasies. The real threat in old school zombies stories isn't necessarily the zombies. The threat is the isolation, the paranoia, the inability to work together, and fact that our structures collapse in the face of the zombie threat.
Robert Neville is not necessarily an easy character to follow around. The isolation and constant threat has made him weird. He spends his days in a routine: fix, scrounge, and slay. He's tormented by the memory of his dead family, he's got weird sexual hang ups (shades of the dissatisfaction I felt reading Matheson's Hell House) and he's staying alive mostly out of habit. The narrative is fixed on his point of view and we feel trapped along with him. The first time he really opens up to us is when he tries to befriend and stray dog. Frankly, I think the story would have been better if it started with this interaction. It shows how far Neville has fallen from his humanity, especially when you stack it up with the more theatrical scenes of him beating his breast at his wife's grave.
The quibbles I have with the book are mostly minor. The dog scenes should have been first, the vampire stuff is ultimately superfluous, the "science" he comes up to explain the vampire condition is pretty half-baked and takes up too much time, and survival stories ultimately lose narrative flow in favor of the minutia of day-to-day getting by. But Matheson not only creates and nails the zombie genre, he proceeds to end the story in the only logical place it could go.
I keep harping on the idea that the reason zombie stories are unique among the horror genre is that most horror is about the monster invading the normal world. It causes damage, we defeat it, the status quo is saved. Zombie stories are about the monster becoming the status quo. Simply by surviving in our world, the remaining humans become the monsters. Monsterism, therefore, is simply a question of context. In the new world being build by the mutants, Neville is the monster. He's the wild-eyed beast slaying creatures in the daylight. He is a thing to be feared and destroyed. It's a much deeper idea than survival stories, and Matheson created it at the beginning of the modern zombie myth.