Friday, November 26, 2010

Hey, Ma, Pass the Sliced Manflesh: I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

Somehow, the holiday season tends to turn my mind to the subject of zombies. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the hordes of blank-eyed people shuffling through stores for products that television has told them to buy.

One thing we've been told to buy recently are zombie and vampire stories. They're "bigger than ever" according to film and publishing executives -- some of whom seem a little like zombies themselves for pursuing the fad with a grim mindlessness: The Walking Dead, 30 Days of Night, Twilight, 28 Days Later, The Crazies, Resident Evil, Shaun of the Dead, World War Z. Some of these are excellent explorations of what undeath might mean, and others...aren't so much.

Regardless of the "quality," there's no denying that stories in which sentience must contend with instinct appeal to many of us at a base level -- maybe as some kind of primal memory from the time not so long ago when we fought that battle a lot more often. They're also reminders of the price of surrendering that sentience for consumer culture or jingoism or rage or love any of the other forces that appeal more to our brain stem than to our frontal lobe.

It's no coincidence that zombies want our brains, the one thing that differentiates us from them. And it's no coincidence that our politicians want them, too.

Perhaps one of the better novels of the undead is Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. It is often thought of as a vampire novel given the biological constraints of the undead depicted in it (only emerging at night, susceptible to religious icons, and so on), but I think it may well be the clearest and most compelling performance of the zombie myth.

In the novel (not to be confused with ANY of the terrible adaptations of it), Robert Neville finds himself struggling to survive long after human civilization has collapsed. By night, he barricades himself in his home from a siege of zombie-like creatures, many of them calling his name, all of them desperate for his flesh. By day, he patrols the neighborhood, looking for the creatures as they repose during the day to stake them through the heart.

At its simplest, I Am Legend is a handbook for comporting yourself after a zombie apocalypse. There are handy tips here for growing your own food, providing your own power, sealing off those pesky windows and doors, and pursuing scientific experiments to eradicate the plague or those who suffer it.

In fact, Neville's scientific bent may be most instructive of all. He reminds us that calm reason is often our only hope in any disaster -- the calm reason required for isolating variables, testing hypotheses, and proceeding with new information.

But the vampire/zombie/undead metaphor is at its best in this book when we're thinking about the role of an individual on the edges of society. Is it okay to do as the Romans (or zombies) do when in Rome? What do you do when you're a minority of one? What becomes of your culture or your morality? For all its adventuresome coolness, I Am Legend addresses heady questions like these, too.

If you're hungry for brains during the zombie holiday season, you may find I Am Legend to be a feast.

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