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  • Books with Bite:The Evolution of the Vampire in Contemporary Literature
  • Erik Smetana (bio)
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. Tor Books, 2007 (reprint), 320 pp., $14.95 (paper).
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, translated by Ebba Segerberg. St. Martin's Press, 2008, 480 pp., $15.95 (paper).
Dracula the Un-Dead by Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt. Dutton Adult, 2009, 432 pp., $15 (paper).
The Passage by Justin Cronin. Ballantine Books, 2010, 784 pp., $27.

The authors of the four books discussed in this review—Richard Matheson, John Advide Lindqvist, Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt, and Justin Cronin—have taken different approaches in addressing the king of all monsters, the vampire. Though how they handle the subject matter varies, they share a common concern, each offering an at times muddied dissertation on evil and humankind's relationship with that evil.

Each book owes a debt to Bram Stoker, who, when he set pen to paper, intent to construct a parabolic commentary on those things he found wrong with the world, likely had no idea he was creating the prototype for a sub-genre of fiction as undying as the characters portrayed in its pages, a genre that is still thriving over a century later—that recently, in fact, has undergone yet another renaissance. [End Page 173]

I Am Legend
Richard Matheson. Tor Books, 2007 (reprint), 320 pp., $14.95 (paper).

Man as the Monster

More than a half a century after Stoker made the vampire a figure of popular culture in 1897 by taking it as the subject of his novel, Richard Matheson changed the subgenre and consequently the whole of horror literature for the latter half of the twentieth century. I Am Legend is the story of Robert Neville, literally the last man on earth. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future and narrates the day-to-day turmoil Neville endures as he struggles to survive in a place where supplies are scarce and monsters lurk in the shadows, ready to take from him the only thing he has left—his humanity.

Equal parts social commentary and emotional Tilt-a-Whirl, I Am Legend opens with a subtle but ominous "On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back." The words are simple and telling. Unlike its predecessors in the category, I Am Legend changes the rules. There is no band of hero adventurers, no vampire hunter with a ready answer and wooden stake or torch-carrying villagers ready to rise up against a singular evil that they refuse to let haunt them anymore. Instead, Matheson's Neville represents a longing for what was and what might still be, in a world where there is nothing left but evil en masse.

Covering four years in twenty-one economical chapters, Matheson creates a world where science has run amok and the answer to salvation is shrouded in knowledge that can be learned only when it's too late to be of any use. At times a pointed commentary on war, a dissertation on the rapid advance of weaponry, the story is laden with concerns about the human cost of scientific endeavor, a recurring theme in several of Matheson's works as well as in the B movies that packed local cinemas around the time of the book's publication.

Passing day after day foraging for supplies and hunting the vampires that call to him as the sun sets with taunts of "Come out Neville," Neville finds life unbearable. His greatest torment is not the creatures who want to feast upon him but the way they remind him that he is isolated, the [End Page 174] final man—though by no means alone. It's a story in which every choice is weighed down with possible consequence, where decision points come flying, forcing action at each turn of the page. Seemingly stuck in the pattern of his repetitive acts that must all be done before the sun goes down—his fastidious breakfast each morning, followed by a reconaissance of the perimeter, the disposition of the newly dead undead that...


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