So, when I read this title, I Am Legend, I automatically think of Tim Curry in magnificent raunchy curled horns and stomping devil hooves, terrifyingly, hugely red, from Ridley Scott’s 1985 film Legend. Or John Legend. Or perhaps the film with Will Smith in it. In descending order of recognition, that title barely scrapes a thought for Richard Matheson’s 1954 vampire novel. Pity. Matheson certainly didn’t invent the vampire, but he put it into 1950s pulp fiction, and imagined vampires in American high streets and grocery stores.
Matheson’s I Am Legend is the basis for the 2007 Will Smith film, which (from looking at the online descriptions) moved the action from an anonymous, Everyman small town to (yawn) New York, and upped the leading character Robert Neville to a ‘brilliant scientist’. Matheson’s Neville is a regular American guy who has to repair his house every morning after the nightly attacks from his vampire neighbours, and also force himself through a basic biochemistry course from library books. You get desperate when you’re working out how your immunity to vampire attack can help you kill them before they kill you.
Matheson’s novel is a pulp classic. It’s a straightforward survival story, generously laced with gore and relentless sexual suggestion. The female vampires flaunt themselves at Neville, trying to lure him outside (of course they do; female vampires only exist to supplement male sex fantasies). The female survivor who Neville rescues is unaccountably unable to keep her bathrobe tied properly. There’s even a scene where something secret is brought out from its hiding-place inside a brassiere. Whatever happened to pockets?
I Am Legend has been repackaged as a science fiction classic, despite its horror lineage, because it uses a serious scientific approach to the problem of the biochemistry of vampirism. Is it in the blood, or in a bacillus? How does the bacillus allow vampires to survive gunshot wounds? Why does wood work when lead won’t, and exactly which part of the garlic bulb is the repellent? I definitely enjoyed the science more than the tedious pulpy parts, because as Neville thrashes through his flashbacks of what happened to work out why the vampire plague happened, we see glimpses of a far more interesting story. I was bored quite quickly by Neville refusing to escape from being trapped in his house by night and scavenging by day. I wanted to read the whole thing, not his deranged memories and circular ramblings. The oblique storytelling becomes really murky towards the end, so much so that I am still none the wiser about why Neville has become a legend to the new society that is taking over the earth. They don’t sound like nice people. I was happy to close the book.
Reading short stories is a calming way to drop off to sleep: you start, you finish, you think about maybe reading one more, you turn the light out. Zzzzz.
Not so with Karen Russell: her genius and enticing weirdness makes you read the whole damn lot in one go. She’s published two collections of stories (St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and Vampires in the Lemon Grove), and one novel, Swamplandia. There’s even been a short film made of St Lucy’s Home, and she can depend on legions of fans clamouring for more of her eclectic and superbly told stories of gentle domestic weirdness. Pop over to Vulpes Libris for more.
Has the time come for an Edith Wharton-H P Lovecraft mashup? If it weren’t for casual remarks about cars, trucks and a jazz club, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward could be read alongside any of Wharton’s short novels, or even a Henry James. His prose is elegant, and involved, requiring close attention to read the meaning rather than the words. The families involved are genteel and very settled in Providence, Rhode Island, and discreet about one of their sons who has disappeared from a hospital for the insane. That’s where Lovecraft departs from those who wrote about American aristocracies.
Lovecraft is an extraordinary, bizarre, amazing (in the sense of confusing and wonderment) curiosity whose fiction is unique and whose nightmares have been adopted with enthusiasm by modern writers with a passion for his imaginative grandeur. This story is a simple tale of witchcraft, summoning and involuntary reincarnation. Its edge derives from the casual remarks that remind us that Lovecraft’s world is not our world.
Last winter there was an unusual outbreak of vampirism. The local paper carries calm reports of grave-robbing with no further comment. Prewrapped mummies are ordered from overseas and delivered by the truckload. A man who has not grown perceptibly older in a hundred years makes a bargain with a respected sea-captain to marry his daughter, and begins to throw balls and parties to keep himself in society. A young college student with a passion for family history finds a portrait painted in the previous century which is his exact likeness. The neighbours mutter about strange happenings and odd screams, but no-one does anything about it, until one night a posse goes to investigate the nameless crimes at the Pawtuxet bungalow, and finds massive excavations and serried cellars underneath. When Dr Willetts goes looking to see what young Charles Ward has been up to, he finds himself crawling in the darkness a long way underground trying to not fall into the pit of horrors in which unformed creatures leap and scream, not having been fed for over a hundred years.
There are no tentacles, but there are incantations to Yog-Sothoth. Is it vintage Lovecraft? Though The Case of Charles Dexter Ward was written in the 1920s it was not published while he lived because he apparently didn’t think much of it. Later critics have disagreed. It’s a fine specimen that repays dissection.