Top 50 F&SF: I Am Legend. Huh?

Spoilers for “I Am Legend” and “Night of the Living Dead.” TURN BACK NOW if you don’t want to be spoiled.






OK, so I got and read “I Am Legend” by Matheson. Well written and creative, but I had the same problem with it that I have with “Lord Foul’s Bane” (&c): the “hero” is such a whiner that I have to grit my teeth to keep reading.

Anyway, in a grand bit of synchronicity, I happend to be panning through channels and caught just enough of an interview with George Romero to find out that “I Am Legend” was his inspiration for “Night of the Living Dead” (he switched zombies for vampires 'cause they’re scarier). Is this the reason that the book made the top 50 list?

PS I’m now reading the Cordwainer Smith collection. That guy’s good.

Although I haven’t read I Am Legend, it’s generally a highly regarded work. I think it can stand on it’s own without the (highly tenuous) link to George Romero. Who put this Top Fifty list together, anyway?

BTW, there aren’t any actual spoilers in your post. Unless you consider “There are zombies in Night of the Living Dead” to be a spoiler.

or maybe the spoiler is that “I am Legend” contains vampires.

Well, aside from Night of the Living Dead, I Am Legend also inspired many other films, such as The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man. The main character may be a little whinny bitch, but so are a lot of characters in many highly acclaimed stories. That doesn’t take away from the fact that the story is still a great story, and as far as I know, the first to deal with this situation. It was written a good long time ago, made good use and new translation on an old genre (the scientific viral aspect of the Vampires, as well as the psychological reasoning behind their fear of mirrors, running water, and crosses), and overall, it was a good story. I don’t care how hardened you are, living a life like that will drive you insane and break any man, so I could relate to the main character’s complaining and felt the story was well written and not that far off base. Admitadely, I haven’t read that much sci-fi/fantasy, but I know there’s a lot of it out there. Whether this one justifiably ranks in the top fifty, I don’t know, but for the time, it was rather original and inovative, and I think it still holds up well by today’s standards, so I think it’s getting due credit.

I thought Charlton Heston’s Omega Man was a more accurate adaptation, even with the campy elements. Vincent Price’s version (The Last man on Earth) was not as good a movie.

“I am Legend” was also the inspiration for the movies “The Omega Man” with Chuck Heston and “The Last Man on Earth” with Vincent Price. The Vincent Price movie is actually a pretty faithful adaptation. The story is highly regarded, I think, because it did go against so many of the conventions of F&SF of that time. The hero isn’t a steely, strong, silent competent kind of guy. He doesn’t, in the conventional sense, triumph in the end. It may seem a bit dated in some ways, but I think “I am Legend” does deserve its highly regarded status.

I’ve read I am Legend. I can liver with the hero being a whiner, but, as one reviewer pointed out: why is it that the source of the Vampire Plague stymied the scientists when it first appeared, but our hero (wgho can’t use a microscope, even) finds it right on his first try? Still, as of all Matheson’s stuff, well written.
I Am Legend was the basis for the Vincent Price film The Last Man on Earth, as well as the Chalton Heston abomination The Omega Man. I didn’t know that Romero was inspired to do Night of the Living Dead because of it, too.

I liked ‘I am Legend’. I thought the ending was a nice twist, and it did something that, IMHO, I wish more books would do. It showed vampires as blood-sucking-feinds-from-beyond-the-grave, not ultra-cool goth things.

(mini rant, mostly OT)- After watching a ‘ultra-cool’ vampire movie a few weeks ago, one of the people I was with started talking about how cool it would be to be a vampire. How she could do whatever she wanted then and ‘look awsome doing it’. Passing on the necessity of mentioning that I doubted dying would make one intrinsicly look cooler, I began to question the young woman about the idea of being dead and drinking blood. She didn’t have a problem with it. Neither did anyone else in the room.

When the hell did feeding off of other humans become more sexy than gruesome?!?

Oh, and as to why it is one of the Top 50 stories, I would have to guess it is due to the manner in which Matheson handled the material. It may be too simplistic to read it as yet another early-50s Red Scare parable, but he does bring up important questions.

While you can make a case for the suppression of a minority whose aims are damaging to the majority, what happens when the balance shifts? How do you act when the former minority is now the majority, and you are a member of the dangerous minority? Are you still justified in fighting? Who defines “normal” life? How is your action now so very different from your enemy’s action then?

And it is one of the best modern vampire stories ever written.

I ardently second the notion that vampires as way cool Eurotrash playing Goth dress-up is absurd. If we examine the actual folkloric beliefs (I once was compelled to do a paper on this very topic), vampires are never regarded with anything but revulsion. The descriptions of them are universally loathsome. Nary a sexy one in the bunch.
The first steps towards “sexy” vampires are found in the novel “Dracula.” Stoker doesn’t describe the Count in any way that makes him seem particularly sexy, but there are numerous symbolic sex acts scattered through the story. It is when “Dracula” first made it to the stage that vampires-as-sex-symbols really began to come into their own. Though he may not seem like it through today’s eyes, Lugosi was considered a handsome leading man-type in his native country. He did bring a certain old-world sophisitication to the role that wowed American audiences for both his stage and (early) screen appearances.
Decades later, the TV show “Dark Shadows” and TV/cinema adaptations of “Dracula” starring Louis Jordan and Frank Langela cemented the idea of the vampire as a sympathetic, tragic “hero.” Langela, in particular, infused his stage and screen performances as the Count with a heavy dose of romantic sexuality.
From there, the movie “The Lost Boys” initiated the young, sexy vampire idea and “Near Dark” (among others) gave it the Goth look.
Or maybe I’m dead wrong about all this…

I agree Scumpup. I think Lugosi’s role as Dracula was the beginning of the sexy vampire image. I dealt with this specifically in my short story “Bela.”

As to spoilers, I was planning to put in more when I started the post, then didn’t. Here are some:

I agree that what he did with the story, especially the fact that the vampires are the “new race” and that he comes to terms with that at the end of the story, is excellent.

As I said, it’s well written. Just because I don’t care for the protaganist, that doesn’t make it a bad story.

It’s interesting that the movies that were “inspired” by this story don’t keep the ending, which I consider to be the most innovative part. I haven’t seen Last Man on Earth but in The Omega Man we are given to believe that humans will rise again (at least they have a chance) and in Night of the Living Dead the zombies are all killed and humans triumph.[/spoiler]

On the other, “why are Vampires cool,” thread: there was a discussion group at the local con (MILEHICON, back about '90) about why vampires are always getting the chicks when all the other monsters just sit home on Saturday night with nary a date in sight. Not that I remember what conclusions were drawn.

Finally, I will nominate a replacement for I Am Legend on the top 50: Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room. (Not to restart the whole top 50 discussion again.)

I still want to know where this Top Fifty list came from.

Miller: I think it was put together by the editors of the Science Fiction Book Club.

I didn’t find the narrator of “I Am Legend” to be a whiner (though, really, who could blame him if he were?). I think he worked very hard to maintain a semi-pleasant, semi-civilized life, and to make himself a quasi-expert on all kinds of things he had no background or experience in.

As for how a non-scientist became an expert on a subject real scientists couldn’t get a handle on, well, he had a luxury the real scientists didn’t: time! The true scientists would undoubtedly have made all the discoveries he did, if only they’d lived long enough.

I’ve read I am Legend,, and now I have to reread it, thanks.

I can definitely see the Night of the Living Dead connection, since, in many ways, the vampires in the Matheson novel resemble zombies, though they are much more intelligent, than they do the literary vampire.

The sexy vampire of literature, BTW, got its start in the late eighteenth century, but didn’t really take hold as a popular convention until the nineteenth century, when writers such as John Polidori (Byron’s personal physician) began creating vampire characters who would seduce, then bring to ruin, people who fell under their influence. But it took until the twentieth century for the seductive vampire to become romanticized to the extent that it has.

I think it was Anne Rice who gave us the idea that being a vampire was something to be desired. Until then, it was basically evil people who would seek out that particular brand of immortality, and “good” people generally had to be gradually seduced into the lifestyle before being turned. Prior to the Rice mythos, the blood-drinking and crypt-living in were generally regarded as a curse, along with the not being able to go out in the sunlight (which, BTW, is also a later invention. Vampires prefer the dark of night, but sunlight would not destroy the vampire of eastern European folklore) and the allergy to religious objects. These were the price one paid for eternal youth and beauty.

Then Anne Rice came along with her idea of the vampire as demigod who could only be destroyed by sunlight and fire, seeming to regard feeding off of and killing humans as their right, rather than merely a physical need. Now the vampire is regarded as beautiful and romantic, not as a vile, evil being who uses its seductive power to lure its prey.

Yeah, but he found the vampire germ by basically just looking through the microscope – that doesn’t take a huge amount of time. Competent researchers would’ve isolated it on the first day.