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  • Writer's pictureR Cipolletta

e22: I Am Legend - Richard Matheson

Writing & Fiction Research 20.10.20

On the Topic of Isolation

General Impressions of the Book - An Unexpected End:

I purchased a special edition of the audio book for this novel, one comprising of other stories alongside the main one - and with this decision came the consequence of a twist ending where there wasn't supposed to be one. By the time I got to the 5h 19m and 46s of the tape, with almost exactly that time left to go, I had completely forgotten that there were other stories to be heard, and the ending to Robert Neville's story hit me with unexpected grandeur.

As a long-time admirer of the film adaptation - which is certainly good but that I had known for many years was not a carbon copy of the original story - I had never quite understood the nature of the choice behind the title, outside perhaps of the notion of Will Smith being the 'legend' of the last man alive (which wasn't even the case by the end of the movie). The inclusion of the answer in the book, combined with the unexpected closing of the story which was in my mind a good 5 hours before it was supposed to end, led way to the shattering understanding, all at once, with the final line. The closing of the loop, the man becoming the frightening bogey-man legend to the vampires, just as the vampire had once been to man.

I can't say for sure if the experience is the same for those who read the book or listened to the audiobook where the final second ticking down perfectly matched with the end of the story, but for me my parting with this book is marked with a sense of completion that I hadn't realised was missing, and I'm very glad to have experienced it.

It has left me to wonder if there's any way to replicate the feeling for my own story. I have no ideas as of yet.

Obsession and Solitude:

When I first started the book I hadn't liked it, finding the initial character of Robert Neville to be fairly pathetic - endlessly moping about his loneliness and altogether too obsessed by his own sex drive. His interest in the female vampires that both literally tempted him with their desire to lure him out, and figuratively tempted him within the confines of his mind, was overall very accurate to how I would expect someone to feel after months of forced isolation following the loss of a loved one, but specifically the unfaltering whining of his self-loathing over what, to me, sounds like a fairly normal psychological reaction to the crushing solitude of the apocalypse, was tiresome to say the least.

As I continued, this otherwise 'simp' of a character, finally redeemed himself when his obsession with the sexual turned to obsession with the science. It was at that point that I realised it was not an error of the author that he had been so pathetic to begin with, and instead was a deliberate device to help me, as a reader, relish in the forward momentum of the character arc and begin to respect/root for him as he progresses. His continued physical disinterest in the female lead, Ruth, upon meeting her confirmed this. At first I thought his sudden change was a fantastically weak attempt by the author to build up some sexual tension from a neutral start between the two characters. However, when his physical disinterest in her never truly faltered, it all but confirmed that I had been tragically mistaken about the novel from the very beginning and it was all just a clever trick by the author to manipulate my feelings toward the character.

So what does this tell me?

The main reason I had chosen I am Legend, in particular, to study from in the listed titles from my On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association was for the potential parallels I thought I could draw between the isolation experienced by Neville and that of my own character - specifically the effects it would have on their mind. I had never imagined it would go this perfectly beyond my expectations.

As mentioned in entry 12, under The Catalyst, The Detective's narrative follows a spiral from healthy solitude into an unhealthy, all-consuming obsession with what appears to be, mostly, smoke and mirrors. This is essentially, a reverse of the character arc for Robert Neville, who starts hopelessly disillusioned and composes himself as he goes on.

Coupled with how incredibly effective the author's little mind game was on me - this means I have gathered the perfect research observations to help me reverse-engineer the writing equivalent of a cook book recipe to help me build an effective and emotionally engaging story. I begin to feel confident that I can use the nature of what my character is obsessing over (perhaps beginning with healthy interests like crochet and ending with the strings of yarn used to connect the stapled evidence pieces across the cork board) to carry on its shoulders a lot of the narrative weight.

Whether I manage to actually pull it off is a question by itself, but for now it feels good to hold the spatula.

Epistolary Gaps:

Before concluding this entry, I wanted to touch briefly upon the fact that I am Legend contained its own quasi-form of epistolary writing. Not in the shape of letters, but rather in the large time gaps between some portions of the story.

I particular I am interested in the use of negative space by Richard Matheson as a narrative device. When the dog is finally captured and confirmed to be infected, Neville does not pursue his ultimately failed attempts to cure it 'on screen'. Instead Matheson simply writes "in a week the dog was dead" and moves on. In this scene, no further details were necessary, we knew exactly, through inference and previous knowledge on the character's personality, how Robert would try to save the dog. All that was immediately missing was the information on the dog's fate, which Matheson puts this to rest with a single line, because no more is needed.

With all the gaps, the author gives enough information for the reader to fill it in by themselves, and uses subtle differences presented as casual 'facts' to fill out the world. I think it would be very useful to imitate this when I finally start writing my story beats.

- R Cipolletta



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