Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

The Inhumanity of Christ: Damnation and Redemption in Richard Matheson's I Am Legend

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

The Inhumanity of Christ: Damnation and Redemption in Richard Matheson's I Am Legend

Article excerpt

One of the most sensitive treatments of the vampire tale is Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. Blending horror with science fiction, the novel manages to infuse a familiar motif with an altogether original premise, and directly demonstrates the adaptability of the vampire to signify contemporary and future epistemological and axiological concerns. In Matheson's novel, the vampire is not a primordial being that has somehow managed to survive into the present, and whose presence now threatens the status quo. Instead, the creature is the result of a global bacterial epidemic that has transformed every human being, except for the story's lone survivor, Robert Neville, into the undead. Barricaded by night in his home from the neighbors who prey vigilantly on him, Neville ventures out by day to acquire supplies and to indiscriminately destroy anyone infected by the bacteria. Neville, who has dubbed the bacteria vampiris, sets up a makeshift biology lab in his home and desperately tries to find a cure (86). His motivation to eliminate the vampires is driven partly by survival instinct, and partly by anger against the disease that has robbed him of both his wife and daughter. He consigned the latter to the fire, for "Only flames could destroy the bacteria that caused the plague" (73). The narrative mostly oscillates between Neville's violent escapades and his despair at failing to unravel the bacteria's mystery, until his fateful meeting with Ruth. Initially, Neville suspects that she is a vampire, but when she is evidently unaffected by vampire repellents such as garlic and sunlight, Neville finally accedes that she is human after all, only to later discover that she is actually a member of an evolved community of vampires sent to spy on him, and engineer his capture. These vampires have learned to "survive" the daylight, and are working toward mobilizing a "new society" that will replace the previous, human one (158). To them, Neville is a dangerous threat whose death is necessary if they are to succeed in rebuilding civilization.

Curiously, despite its innovation and popularity, I Am Legend has attracted little scholarly attention; available criticisms moreover, tend to concentrate on the screen adaptations rather than the novel, (1) which often results in a focal shift to the issues privileged in the films (such as race). (2) Like much Anglo-American science fiction in the 1950s and 60s, the novel's chief concern is the looming fear of a nuclear apocalypse and its aftermath. In Legend, the aftermath arrives in the guise of mutated bacteria from a recent nuclear conflict, which signals the end of humanity (56). Airborne, the bacteria's spread is swift, widespread, and inescapable, and the bacteria quickly transform every human person on earth into a vampire. These vampires not only feed on humans, but can contaminate and turn their victims into vampires with their bites as well. Matheson distinctly deploys a popular Gothic monster to comment on technological abuse, but also extends its figurative function to envision the state of our being and existence beyond our humanity. As a creature that resembles its victim in many ways, and thus stands as an intimate other to the human, the vampire is a profoundly effective metaphor to direct meditation on the place of humans as the dominant species, and our simultaneous potential for self-deconstruction and redemption. As such, while the vampire may augur the end of the human, it could equally serve as humankind's salvation and continuation after humans have engineered their own annihilation.

Within the generic parameters of science fiction, I Am Legend clearly subscribes to the dystopian narrative. While dystopian texts are generally known for their apocalyptic theme and pessimistic tone, they are not summarily devoid of a compensatory tenor. As Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan assert, there are dystopic narratives that "affiliate with eutopian tendency as they maintain a horizon of hope" (3); these narratives do not "[foreclose] all utopian possibility [but] negotiate a more strategically ambiguous position somewhere along the antinomic continuum" (6). …

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