Sunday 2 December 2012

True Blood: The Vampire in Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (Corgi, 1960) and Justin Cronin's The Passage and The Twelve (Orion, 2010/2012)

Thus far in this series of posts on paperbacks, the books under discussion – if my incoherent keyboard-clattering claptrap could be characterised as such – have all been of a crime or spy bent: Edward S. Aarons's Assignment to Disaster; Richard Stark's The Green Eagle Score; Elmore Leonard's The Big Bounce. To mix things up a bit, then, I thought we could look at some science fiction and fantasy paperbacks next, beginning with this:

A 1960 British Corgi paperback printing of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. This is actually the second Corgi edition (Corgi #SS854), following the 1956 first printing (Corgi #T197, which in turn followed the 1954 US Fawcett Gold Medal original), which sported a different treatment and illustration on the cover – a head-and-shoulders illustration of the novel's protagonist, Robert Neville, the last man alive, set against a staked vampire in a barren landscape (presumably an interpretation of the book's burning vampire pit). Corgi were evidently happier with the artwork on the 1960 edition, however – which depicts Neville looming over his staked wife, Virginia – as for their next edition, in 1962 (Corgi #SS1213), they went with this:

Now, on first inspection, that appears to be the same painting as on the previous edition. Look closer, however – click on the picture to zoom in – and you can see that the artwork has either been painted over, or painted afresh. The brush marks are smoother; the areas of contrast on Virginia not so stark; and the underpainting is less visible, in particular on the hillock, where in the previous version, the pink "ground" can be clearly seen.

To be honest, I'm not sure which one I prefer; they both have their merits, as does the type treatment on both covers. Frankly, early Corgi editions of I Am Legend are so scarce – certainly moreso than Gold Medal editions, and those are pretty uncommon as it is – I may well keep them both.

I'd already seen two of the three movie adaptations of I Am Legend – the Charlton Heston classic The Omega Man (1971) and the eponymous 2007 Will Smith version (which I watched as a slightly unfestive pre-Christmas treat that year, and rather enjoyed) – before reading the book, but neither of those films really captures the essence of the novel. For one thing, in the book, the cause of mankind's downfall is unequivocally vampirism, not mutants or whatever the hell those creatures in the I Am Legend movie are; Matheson's interpretation of it, sure, but explicitly named as such. For another, the way the vampires verbally taunt Neville – barricaded in his brownstone – especially his neighbour, Ben Cortman, brings an added layer of cruelty and torture to proceedings. And where both adaptations pull back from the brink of outright nihilism, Matheson doesn't blink: the horror and despair is unrelenting, with every glimmer of hope quickly extinguished, right down to the final twist in the tale, which upends both ours and Neville's perception of his plight.

One thing Matheson does in I Am Legend is strive to establish a scientific background for vampirism – and it just so happens I've recently finished reading another novel which attempts a similar thing:

Justin Cronin's splendidly sprawling epic The Twelve (Orion, 2012) – which, I think, is the best "new" book I've read this year – the sequel to this:

The Passage (Orion, 2010). Obviously there are differences between Cronin and Matheson, not least being that the former's magnum opus is by this point well over a thousand pages long and still only two-thirds done, whereas the latter's novel barely troubles 150 pages. Even so, they both offer explanations for the vampire – except that they approach their explanations from different directions. In I Am Legend, Neville tries to determine the scientific basis of each symptom of the, on the surface, seemingly supernatural disease of vampirism – living death, fear of garlic, etc. – in order to arrive at a cure. But in The Passage and The Twelve, right from the outset Cronin painstakingly establishes the scientific basis for each vampiric manifestation – from an encounter with Amazonian vampire bats and consequent US military experimentation to, in The Twelve, the appearance of "familiars" – and builds a supernatural mythology from there. Interestingly, this sense of opposites meeting in the middle extends even to the root cause: in I Am Legend it's bacteriological, while in The Passage and The Twelve it's viral.

Anyway: onwards. And next, two paperback editions of a key work of dystopian science fiction, featuring an introduction by Kingsley Amis...


  1. If you haven't seen it yet, the Vincent Price movie version is decent, too. I think it might actually be public domain -- it seems to stream free a lot of legit places.

  2. Nope, haven't seen it, so that's good to know. Thanks Kelly; I'll keep me eyes open for it. Or possibly shut, if it's dead scary.

  3. The Vincent Price film is far and away the best AND scariest AND most faithful to the novel--also the most cheaply made, in Italy. George Romero cited it as a direct influence on "Night of the Living Dead", which came along a few years later. It hangs onto the pessimism of the book, but I'm not sure it's exactly pessimism--more like grim realism. Times change, and if you don't change with them, or actually try to fight the change, people will eventually come to see you as a monster, rightly or not (and it's always a matter of perspective, of course).

    So basically a horror-genre take on the generation gap. The Omega Man perceives this very clearly, but tries to bridge the gap--not very convincingly, I thought. As to the Will Smith movie, the dog is cute.

    I have a hardcover book club edition with lousy dust jacket art that a friend gave me. I can't make up my mind whether I like the Gold Medal or Corgi covers best--they're both so good.

    This was, btw, probably the first modern vampire novel. The first of the 20th century that exercised any real influence, or has been remembered (and repeatedly adapted for the movies).

    Another very interesting retake on vampires that came out not long after "I Am Legend" (and well before Anne Rice came along, after which EVERYBODY was doing vampires) is Leslie Whitten's "Progeny of the Adder", which takes a more traditional European vampire (not the hunky sophisticated type so popular today) and moves him to Washington DC, where we watch a police detective right out of a Gold Medal cop thriller gradually come to terms with the true nature of the serial killer of prostitutes he's tracking down.

    Very suspenseful and effective--so much so that it probably served as the basis for an unacknowledged rip-off novel by the little-remembered Jeff Rice, "The Night Stalker", that was bought up before it was even published, and turned into an insanely popular TV movie starring Darren McGavin, that led to a sequel, and then an undeservedly shortlived TV series (and a deservedly shortlived remake series, more recently). As a kid, I used to LIVE for Friday nights when "The Night Stalker" came on.

    I only bring this up because the teleplays for the first two Night Stalker movies were written by--drumroll please--Richard Matheson. Who I'm sure had NO idea he was being made a party to borderline plagiarism. David Chase, later of Sopranos fame, had his very first job in television working on the network series.

    And you could say all of this really started with Matheson writing an offbeat vampire book for the paperback market, that he probably figured would just get lost in a sea of lurid paperbacks. You just never know.

  4. As a kid, I LOVED The Omega Man. I would scan my newspaper's TV Guide (it was a free supplement in those days--not the one you buy at the drugstore, if it's even sold anymore)every week to see if a station was playing it, and if it was I'd be found lounging on the carpet with my soda and chips and pillow transfixed on the TV screen.

    The "zombies" were so damn freaky. They were intelligent and totally insane. I loved the Neville character and for some reason always wished the ending would be different and he would live at trhe end. Hey, I was only a kid;-) lol

    The music was awesome as well. I can still remember how it goes even though I haven't seen it in many years.

    I saw the Price and Wil Smith movies and I thought they were shite (British version of the word for you, Nick;-)

    I've always meant to read the novel but somehow never got around to it. I will have to buckle down and get a copy--in fact, after I post this comment I'm heading over to Amazon to see if it's available for my Kindle.

    Thanks for another great post that flooded me with warm memories. You are the dog's bollocks, mate!
    After reading Howard Linskey's The Drop, which explores the "Outfit" of Newcastle, I've become a huge fan of British Crime Lit and don't be surprised if you see me using Bristish terms and expressions for a while!;-) lol

  5. Chris: I have an interview with Jeff Rice from way, way back, where he says that the Whitten (or his publisher) accused him of plagiarism and attempted to take him to court. If I remember correctly, he said that he was able to prove that the book's main idea was his own,and the legal proceedings fizzled out. It may be that the idea was simply in the air (in the comic world there is the case of X-MEN and THE DOOM PATROL where the two simultaneously published comics have several important plot ideas in common, even though the two writers were unaware of the other's creation).

    I first became aware of the NIGHT STALKER telly series after reading Steven King really trash it in his book DANCE MACABRE. When I finally go to see it, the show turned out to be the most enormous fun, and it became obvious that King's taste in TV was not always to be trusted.

    It's nice to see that some other people on this page love THE OMEGA MAN. It's a major guilty pleasure for me.

  6. Plagiarism (unless it's word-for word, which is rare) can only be proven in court if you can establish the alleged plagiarist is familiar with the material he or she allegedly plagiarized--Rice flat-out denied he'd read Whitten's book, and nobody could prove otherwise.

    Now leaving aside what can be proven--is that credible? Not really, given that it came out just before he started working on his own novel (which is, to be entirely fair, a piece of badly-written crap with a more colorful protagonist than Whitten's more disciplined work). Whitten's book was well-received, and was one of the very few vampire novels of that era--so how could a vampire buff like Rice not be familiar with it? The two books resemble each other in so many specific ways, it's really hard to buy it as a coincidence--and yes, coincidences happen--but when I see one writer produce a number of good books, and the other just one rather poor one that is mainly remembered because of a TV movie--makes ya go hmmmm..

    It should be mentioned that Rice's book was only published AFTER his agent sold the adaptation rights--indeed, it wasn't published until after the movie aired on TV--basically it was a novelization written in advance of the movie.

    Matheson's brilliant teleplay for "The Night Stalker" is the only reason Rice achieved even the meager momentary fame he did. Rice's only other published novel is "The Night Strangler", which is simply a novelization of Matheson's original teleplay for the second movie!

    I didn't just decide this randomly--I read both novels. I'd always wondered who this Jeff Rice I saw in the credits for the TV series was, and why I'd heard so little else about him. I'd heard so little else about him because there was absolutely nothing else to hear about.

    Leslie Whitten, while not at the level of Richard Matheson, was a truly interesting and original writer (as well as a successful investigative journalist), and he might be better remembered today if "Progeny of the Adder" had been turned into a movie--which it was going to be, but then "The Night Stalker" came out, and was so similar that it basically killed the deal.

    What Jeff Rice says in an interview is kind of beside the point--what would you expect him to say?

    And FYI, it wasn't Whitten who filed the lawsuit. He was too busy writing more books.

  7. Hmm. I was aware Matheson had written one of the Night Stalker pilots. CBS used to show the repeats late at night in the 80's, and later Sci-Fi showed them in the late 90's/early 00's. There were two distinct pilots, if I recall, before the show was picked up. One concerns a vampire, and the other has something to do with a city which existed under modern day Seattle, if memory serves (mind you, it's been a decade or more since I've seen any of these shows).

    I don't remember Matheson writing any of the regular season episodes, and some of them could get quite hokey, but it was a fun show, and scary enough if you were a kid when first seeing them (as I was).

    Apparently Matheson dabbled in TV and Film quite a bit--he of course wrote some Twilight Zones. And wrote the screenplay for Jaws 3, I believe. Which is sad because that film sucks.

    Funny you mentioning King, Sexton; over at someone also mentioned King's work being "uneven" in response to my comment that King had planned to write a Travis McGee novel called Chrome but failed to attain the rights to the character from John MacDonald's son earlier today.

    The bit of flipping through his work at bookstores I've done throughout the years, and having seen most of his films, I can't say I am that much a fan of his stuff. Just not my thing.

  8. I guess you could describe King as uneven, but you could level the same criticism against a lot of writers. It's true that for every great King book, there's a less great one – but even the not so great ones have good stuff in them. And the truly great ones – 'Salem's Lot, The Stand, The Dead Zone, The Dark Half, Needful Things – tower over most other writers' work.


  9. When 'Doctors Wear Scarlet', by the rakish and unreliable Simon Raven, came out in 1960 the UK critics dismissed its vampire plot as immature and unsuitable for adults. Things change.

    Raven had a fairly 'literary' reputation at that time. It's not quite 'I am Legend' but the Greek setting and sexual theorising make it an interesting read.

    It was made into the movie 'Incense for the Damned' aka 'Bloodsuckers' in the 1970s. A strange, star-packed but unfinished movie that I like very much. No-one else does though.


  10. Anon, you're not the only one out there who thinks "Doctors Wear Scarlet" is worth remembering. Here's a brief essay on the history of the modern vampire novel--which to get us back on topic, truly did begin with "I Am Legend", atypical though it has proven to be in a field that is increasingly about the Vampire As Ultimate Boyfriend.

    I have read the Sonja Blue novels of Nancy Collins, and aside from being ingeniously creepy fun, with perhaps the strongest female protagonist ever seen in this genre, they are an obvious and direct influence on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", whether you consider that a good thing or not. Joss Whedon took with both hands there.

    To clarify some misinformation, the first two Night Stalker movies were not pilots for the shortlived TV series--and both got staggeringly high ratings. Matheson wrote the teleplays for both, and the second was his original story. THEN came the pilot for the show (not written by Matheson), which was about Jack the Ripper in the modern era--influenced by Robert Bloch's short story on that very subject.

    And yes, Matheson wrote some Twilight Zones--16, according to IMDb, and some of the most classic and well-remembered. When Rod Serling won the writing Emmy for that show, he told Matheson and Charles Beaumont, his primary writing partners on the show, that he'd divide it up with them later. They were every bit as much a part of that show's enduring reputation as Serling himself. You just can't find a more important name in the 'genre' field than Matheson. And I think Stephen King would agree with that. And yes, King wrote some very good books, but he just goes on writing whether the books are any good or not. Can't fault him for that, but can't say I await his latest with bated breath either.

  11. Chris: I wasn't making any value judgements about whether Rice was a plagiarist or not. I was simply telling you about the legal proceedings, so there's no real need to talk to me as though I was attacking Whitten. For the record, I think that Rice's original book is pretty dreadful. Matheson did a real job on the novel, trimming all of the fat and turning what was left into classic TV. Amusing to note that Rice complained about all of the stuff that Matheson left out of the adaption. If he hadn't, the movie would never have got the ratings it did.

    I read the Whitten book about 15 years ago, when I found it in a library. I recall enjoying it, but haven't seen a copy since, so my memory is rather blurry. Are there any other Whitten novels that you would recommend? With online book sale sites it makes it easier to find stuff like this.

    The early Steven King is wonderful, but I have to admit that in recent years he hasn't done anything on par with THE DEAD ZONE or SALEM'S LOT. I was fascinated to discover that King had attempted to write a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, but gave up after a few chapters. Thinking of authors to write Sayers continuation novels, the list would have to be pretty near infinite before I got to King.

  12. Sexton, I wasn't accusing you of anything either--if I let a bit of my mild irritation at you thinking I wasn't as informed as you on this little episode leak through, I'm truly sorry. You had no way of knowing I'd covered all the same ground as you. I spent a fair few months well and truly obsessed with the Whitten/Rice affair, mainly because I'd been such a huge Kolchak fan (and still am, I guess, but you have to move on).

    I've read two other Whittens--"Moon of the Wolf", a pretty standard werewolf tale, which is fairly atmospheric, but just isn't as good as Progeny--it did get made into a movie, but Richard Matheson didn't adapt it, Dan Curtis didn't produce it, and the magic did not happen there.

    And the other is "The Alchemist", a rather interesting and somewhat unique tale of sex and intrigue (and yes, alchemy) in Washington DC.

    Leslie Whitten spent much of his career as an investigative journalist in Washington, and frequently ghost-wrote Jack Anderson's influential column (the same Jack Anderson President Nixon reputedly weighed having bumped off by G. Gordon Liddy). Jeff Rice was also a reporter, but strictly smalltime.

    As to King--I think maybe he's the victim of his own fecundity. He buries the gold in a mountain of dross. And while I wouldn't call him a plagiarist, he borrows too much from too many. I think because his own vision began to run dry years ago, and when you're an industry (as opposed to a mere author), it's publish or perish.

  13. Saxtonblake: I would say King is not the first writer I would think of continuing the Travis McGee series, either. He wouldn't even be in the ballpark. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't read Chrome if he had been allowed to write it. As a huge McGee fan, I'd be the first in line, as I would if a new Parker novel were published by King as well. (This idea is scary on both counts, and not in the way that scary is usually associated with King).

    Nick: There are quite a few writers who I don't think are quite as good as they're often touted, and of couse some whom I think are far better than they're given credit for. King is often not given a lot of literary cred by many critics. To his credit, JDM himself defended King in the foreward to Night Shift. So, if you like King you're in good company, IMO.

    I've been researching Aarons and his Sam Durell books. I may give one a go. I have to say I am not usually a fan of Spy-Fi. You know my bag: Criminal Procedurals. I have a hard time swallowing the premise of intelligent and capable men like Bond going through all the danger and beat-downs for Mother Britain, as I would believing Sam Durell suffering for America. I find the criminal's motivation: moohlah, much more realistic and identifiable.

  14. Interesting, wide-ranging discussion this; Chris, Sexton, I think it's worth the effort to stay civil (relatively; this is, after all, Existential Ennui) to see where it goes, if you have more to say on the various matters. I know neither of you intend to cause offence, and indeed how easy it can be for unintended offence to be caused online. But bearing that in mind, have at it.

    Dave, I have two words for you: Anthony Price. Price's spy novels are essentially fiendish – but usually quite simple in the end – mysteries disguised as spy novels. I may have mentioned him to you before, but I would heartily recommend the first novel in the David Audley series, The Labyrinth Makers:

    And as Price said in my interview with him, the motivation for his secret agents, as it was for him, was a very real, existential fear of the Communist threat. Not as tangible a motivation as money, but just as believable.

  15. Nick: After a bit of a misunderstanding, Chris has been very civil. With only words to communicate with, it can be very easy to cause offence, but after a bad experience on the net some years ago, I always count to ten before replying!

    Directly because of your site, I have started reading Anthony Price and am really enjoying his books. Thanks.

    Chris: I shall look out for those books. Thanks.

  16. Aw, always nice to hear my shonky blog posts have been of some benefit. Glad my Price posts were useful, Sexton. And Dave: there you go -- another recommendation for Mr Price!

  17. I'll try Price out. Funny, as a kid, after discovering Bond (my father took me to see Moonraker when I was like 5 or 6) I was spy-crazy. As I grew I circled every spy film in the coming week's TV listings; films like The Liquidator, The Double Man, The Mackintosh Man (no, it's not about a guy who really likes apples), Our Man Flint, the Matt Helm films, the older Bonds of course, etc.

    But I bever really read many Spy novels other than the Bonds, a Helm or two, and maybe a few others. It went from comic books and Hardy Boys (and Encyclopedia Brown, whom I liked better) to Fantasy like Elric and Conan to Crime Lit. Especially PI novels. Then a sudden wave of reality hit me and I lost interest in black/white morality tales and discovered "Criminal Procedurals" like the Parker novels, and I had found my true fascination.

    Maybe Price will herald another genre to enjoy.

  18. There are two other little discussed vampire novels which toy with scientific explanations and cures for vampirism. FEVRE DREAM (1982) by George R.R. Martin in which a post-Civil War era vampire is trying to cure himself through a synthetic blood he invented (hmmm...sound familiar, TV fans?) and a war with good vampires vs. bad vampires takes up most of the action. There is also THE VAMPIRE TAPESTRY (1980) by Suzy McKee Charnas in which an American academic is given a chance at a cure through science and psychoanalysis. Both are classics and both are practically forgotten. Martin's book has been reissued -- thankfully -- due to the success of his Game of Thrones TV series. I am sure there will soon be an explosion of blog posts pointing out the uncanny similarities between FEVRE DREAM and aspects of TRUE BLOOD, the cable TV series based on Charlaine Harris' novels which came more than a decade after Martin's book. Expect rumors of plagiarism reports to follow.

  19. Thanks for that, John – those sound interesting, especially the Martin one (which rings a distant bell). I've yet to read anything by Martin; I was debating trying A Game of Thrones – quite a few people have recommended that to me in the wake of the TV show (which I like a lot) – but maybe I'll try Fevre Dream instead.

  20. Some very interesting postings on I am Legend etc folks.
    First time of commenting although I have followed Nick's ravings (?) for some time.

    As a media studies teacher (now retired) I once encouraged my students to look at the way I am Legend influenced films like Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Between The Omega Man (yes my guilty pleasure too!)and the OTT Will Smith version, another variation was planned with Schwarzenegger! The script is online. Not great. The cost torpedoed it but elements crop up in Smith's film like the super powerful mutants.
    One point of interest is that if you look at the credits in the Smith screenplay, The Omega Man screenwriters are also given a credit. Some ideas, like the mannequins are clearly based on the Heston film.

    No more to add now

    all the best