Another interesting little vignette by Matheson. To be honest, though, I didn’t find anything particularly interesting from a writer’s perspective. The dialog is plain, there’s little action, no real sense of tension, and the ending is standard “Twilight Zone” material.
These are the final chapters. Matheson does a great job of continuing to create change in Neville. He’s encountered another human who is apparently immune as well, Ruth. He’s cold and distrustful at first, now having been in isolation for about 3 years.
He suddenly realized that he had become an ill-tempered and inveterate bachelor again. He no longer thought about his wife, his child, his past life. The present was enough.
But one night, he wakes to see Ruth standing in the shadows, and confuses her with his long dead wife. It breaks him, and he is reduced to tears, embracing Ruth in a moment of common comfort.
I have one issue with how Matheson starts Chapter 17. It may seem small, but it pulled me out of the story. Neville wakes, crying out “Virge!”. So far as I can tell, unless I missed something, this is the first instance we have of Neville referring to his wife this way. Prior, it was always Virginia. As a reader, I was confused, as I’ve never heard Virge used as a nickname for Virginia, although I’ve heard it used for Virgil. It was only a page or so later that I made the connection. As a writer, this is something I try to avoid. I believe firmly that names need to be consistent throughout, and that any nicknames for characters must be established as early as possible. Okay - enough about that.
The rest of the piece was a surprise for me. I have to admit, I saw the movie, and so I think my expectations were tainted. Sure, there’s similarities, but they are different stories. I wasn’t surprised by Neville’s resistance to moving out of the house, even after Ruth’s stark warning. It fit perfectly with what I expected of a hermit who’s so settled in his ways.
I was, however, surprised that he had resigned not to fight when they came for him. But, it wasn’t enough to distract me from the story. Neville is captured and held prisoner. Even in the face of certain death, even after all he’s been through, Neville has retained core human characteristics:
In spite of having lived with death all these years, in spite of having walked a tightrope of bare existence across an endless may of death – in spite of that he couldn’t understand it. Personal death still was a thing beyond comprehension.
What I find most interesting about how this ends is the parrallel Matheson draws between that last piece of humanity as it was (Neville) and the first establishment of humanity as it will be (the “Vampire” society). The interaction between Neville and Ruth at the end, the dialog, her assistance in his suicide, the kiss between them show there’s a common thread that persists even though the biology has changed.
The realization at the end is powerful as well. Matheson has set things up very well to pull of what happens to Neville and what he thinks as he stares out the window at the new society, preparing to kill himself:
Then sudden silence, as though a heavy blanket had fallen over their heads. They all stood looking up at him with their white faces. He stared back. And suddenly he thought, I’m the abnormal one now.
It is the stake in his heart, so to speak. A deep understanding that his fight for survival was a key part in the transition of the human race, and that his part was at an end. I can’t imagine a more appropriate way to end this story, nor a more appropriate title:
I am legend.
This vignette by Richard Matheson presents an interesting technique for escalation. It’s brief story of an odd man who plays a game at the fair, the one where you chuck ping-pong balls into a fish bowl, and never misses.
The escalation is just that - the man never misses. It is, by nature of the scene, repetitive, but it’s the repetition of the man’s success that builds the story, bringing the reader along. Will he ever miss? Is he a shill? The carny gets first annoyed, the suspicious, and finally upset as this stranger drops ball after ball in the same fish bowl.
As a writer, this story presents a fine example of escalation through repetition.
As a reader, I’m left without answers. But, such can be the nature of a vignette.
Here we find Neville hitting another brick wall. He thinks he’s figured out what’s causing the vampires - a Bacilli (germ) - but he can’t attribute all the vampire behaviors to it. So, what’s he do? Well, by this point we know Neville pretty well - a man who, although he’s survived some pretty extreme circumstances, falls back to the drink when things get too challenging.
Man, it’s time this guy get a new tune.
Matheson must have felt so, too. Because in the next few chapters, he introduces two significant new elements that further serve to change Neville.
The first of these is a dog. Just a dog. But this guy’s been on his own so long, that the dog is a huge impact:
He stayed drunk for two days and planned on staying drunk till the end of time or the world’s whiskey supply, whichever came first.
And he might have done it, too, if it hadn’t been for a miracle.
It happened on the third morning, when he stumbled out onto the porch to see if the world was still there.
There was a dog roving about on the lawn.
This dog is renewed hope for Neville. It gives him something aside from himself to care for, to look after, to give purpose to what has become a repeatitive and almost meaningless existence. So the next few chapters are about Neville winning the dog’s trust, him realizing the dog is infected, and trying to cure it. Chapter 14 ends with the dog dying.
So, I expected Neville to fall back to his old routine - get drunk, feel sorry for himself, beat stuff up, kill some vampires. But, Matheson makes the change in him permenant. Chapter 14 actually begins by saying as much:
There was no debauch of drinking. Far from it. He found that he actually drank less. Something had changed.
So now we have a new, improved Neville, one who attackes the problem of the Vampire Bacilli with a fresh perspective. His initial attempt at the solution relied solely on him learning biology. Matheson has an extremely creative solution here - he now has Neville teach himself psychology, and Neville is able to provide rational explanations for ALL the vampire symptoms by being either the Bacilli, or the result of hysteria. And this resolution brings closure for Neville, sealing the change in personality to that of a strong hermit.
Chapter 15 & 16 deal with Neville’s next encounter with another living being. A woman - Ruth. I don’t have much to comment on here yet, other than - either I’m an idiot or Neville is. She’s pregnant. I guess I’ll find out soon. The distrust that plays out from Neville is interesting, and I’m curious to see where this all leads.
So here we get more of Neville’s back story, the death of his wife, his determination to bury her instead of burn her, and the horror of her return as a vampire. It’s interesting, but what really interested me more in these chapters is how Matheson shows us real change in Neville.
Neville has continued sobering himself up, tackling his situation like a real problem solver. He refers a few time to his father’s belief in the scientific method as inspiration. It’s an interesting character development, so see Neville set upon the library, reading and learning everything he can, teaching himself to use a microscope, learning to understand what he’s looking at, and ultimately coming to the conclusion that this is a virus.
For me, it holds the same fascination as CSI or a police procedural. Matheson does a good job of making the process of discovery itself interesting without doing massive info dumps, giving just the information the reader needs to understand the conclusions.
There was an additional piece in chapter 10 that I found noteworthy. Neville has entered the library, which is still very neat, with all the chairs pushed in at the tables. He’s imaging the poor librarian who pushed them in the last time:
He thought about that visionary lady. To die, he thought, never knowing the fierce joy and attendant comfort of a loved one’s embrace. To sink into that hideous coma, to sink then into death and, perhaps, return to sterile, awful wanderings. All without knowing what it was to love and be loved.
That was a tragedy more terrible than becoming a vampire.
Even in the midst of his situation, Neville can imagine something worse. It’s a clear sign that he’s coming to grips with what’s happening and is committing himself to doing what he can to fix it.