On 15 March, Miskatonic London is giving a class on Richard Matheson’s iconic vampire novel I Am Legend. If you’re familiar with the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, you’ll already be excited about this and may well have already bought your ticket. If not, then it’s high time you became acquainted.
Miskatonic London is our local branch of the organisation that offers university-level history, theory and production-based masterclasses for people of all ages, founded by renowned genre expert Kier-La Janisse back in 2010. Janisse co-runs the London branch with Josh Saco, who genre movie fans will recognise from the most excellent Cigarette Burns Cinema. Upcoming events include a look at the restoration of Nosferatu and the way fear of cults created a new horror sub-genre.
The class on I Am Legend will be given by author Stacey Abbott, examining the impact Matheson’s novel had on genre cinema, and the expert was kind enough to answer a few questions for us.
What can we expect from the I Am Legend event?
The aim of the event will be to rethink the novel’s place within the evolution of the horror genre. Despite it being a favourite of many fans, it is too often forgotten in discussions of the genre, particularly in terms of the growing popularity of vampire and zombie film and TV. It really is an important precursor to so many things we take for granted about the genre. I am also keen to talk about the film that was never made, based upon Matheson’s own script; its problems with the censors and then consider how/why Night Of The Living Dead, even though it was inspired by the novel rather than adapting, was able to capture Matheson’s ideas and sensibilities so well.
What was your first encounter with Richard Matheson’s story?
I was aware of Matheson first because of his writing for The Twilight Zone. It was only when I was doing my MA and I started writing about vampire films that I read I Am Legend. It made a big impact on me as it was so different from the other vampire literature I was reading from Bram Stoker to Anne Rice. And I keep coming back to the book. I have read it many times and recommend it to all of my students. The more I thought of the book the more I realise that it is a hugely significant text for horror and science fiction. Which is why when I began working on my most recent book on vampires and zombies in the 21st Century, I began to see this novel as a key origin text.
Why is I Am Legend such a genre landmark?
It marks a shift away from folklore and gothic traditions that had come to define vampire and horror literature, largely because it marks a fusion of horror and science fiction. This was not uncommon in the 1950s and not surprising in a world that had seen the development and use of the Atomic Bomb. Science was scarier than gothic vampires so his novel deconstructs gothic conventions through the language of science. He strips away all of the tropes that were familiar and, in many ways, comforting and shows us a world where a human-made bacteria could destroy all of humanity or more accurately could change humanity so that we became the monsters. It offers a bleak vision of a post-apocalyptic landscape.
How do you feel about the various film adaptations?
I like the adaptations in their own right. I do not think any of the official adaptations have ever really captured Matheson’s vision but they each contain elements of it. In particular they all capture the horror and loneliness of being the ‘last man on earth’ that his novel evokes. The image of Will Smith curled up in his bathtub with his dog as he listens to the monsters outside trying to get in nicely represents the pain of Matheson’s novel. They also often capture the mundaneness of the hero’s routines to stay alive…carving stakes, barricading windows, growing garlic. His story transforms Van Helsing’s grand pursuit of his master vampire in Dracula into a mundane routine where there is no ‘master vampire’ and at best you are clearing away one set of monsters to make way for the next. But what the adaptations have never really captured was the novel’s ending. Matheson was telling the story of the end of humanity its replacement by a new world order. The adaptations have shied away from that by positing the possibility and hope for a cure. It is really Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (and its subsequent sequels), a film that was only inspired by Matheson, that focuses on the possibility that humanity is being replaced by the living dead.
Why do you think filmmakers seem to be more comfortable adapting it as a zombie story rather than a vampire one?
I think that the vampire genre has always been so heavily influenced by Gothic traditions and the notion of the lone ‘master vampire’ like Dracula that it is tough to shed that legacy. Zombies seem to embody what Matheson was suggesting, the dead returned from the grave. This is more in keeping with the folkloric vampire rather than the literary one but in a post-Romero world the zombie has come to represent that idea of the dead crawling out of a grave. It is challenging to shed that history particularly in recent years with the rise of the sympathetic/romantic vampire in literature, film and TV. But there are many vampire texts that have touched on this idea from Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot to the Spierig Brothers’ Daybreakers, where we see what a vampire society actually looks like ten years after the outbreak.
Is there a director that you’d like to see take on I Am Legend?
I suppose I would love to see Kathryn Bigelow return to the vampire genre and take a stab at I Am Legend. She has the ability to capture the loneliness and isolation, as well as the apocalyptic scale of this story. But it doesn’t seem in keeping with her current career trajectory. Or perhaps Jim Mickle, with Nick Damici as Neville. This could be a very nice companion piece to Stakeland which is one of my favourite vampire films.
The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies – London – The Legacy of Richard Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend’
Date: March 15th 2018
Time: 7:00pm-10:00pm Venue: The Horse Hospital Address: Colonnade, Bloomsbury, London WC1N 1JD Prices: £10 advance / £11 on the door / £8 concs (students/seniors with ID) www.miskatonic-london.com