26 September 2010

"The Funeral" by Richard Matheson

The 2007 Orb edition. (Source)
I would like to preface this post with my recent experience, which many of you can glean from my previous entry. My father passed away unexpectedly and my Mom, brother, and I had to travel to NYC to meet up with my sister, who has lived with Dad for the past seven years. We were there for five days and it was rush, rush, rush, calling hours, funeral, clean up, and we're flying back to our homes again.

You can understand to a certain degree why I've put off reading horror altogether. For a while I just wasn't in the mood to think about monsters and dead people, and when I reminded myself that I am in graduate school and would like to succeed, I snapped into overdrive. I checked the roster: Richard Matheson's "The Funeral." I didn't feel like reading it at first, but that's because I judged the work simply on the basis of the title and the melancholy, grieving mood I was in. That's just as bad as judging a book by its cover. But it was a pleasant surprise and not at all something that would cause a bereaved person to have nightmares about funerals.

This was a fun, quick read, and if you are partial to the deliberate over-inflation and embellishment of the English language, you will enjoy how Matheson plays with it in this piece.

"The Funeral" would have to be the complete polar opposite of Matheson's famous work, I Am Legend, in terms of form and function. In my previous post you can see that Matheson employs straightforward, sparse diction. It's a tense work, and as such, language can be a burden if you are shooting for urgency in your writing. In comparison, this nine-page short story reads like the offspring of the lace on an Edwardian Valentine's Day card and your grandmother's old doilies. For example:
I Am Legend: "On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back" (13).
"The Funeral: "Morton Silkline was in his office musing over floral arrangements for the Fenton obsequies when the chiming strains of "I am Crossing o'er the Bar to Join the Choir Invisible" announced an entrant into Clooney's Cut-Rate Catafalque" (261).
"The Funeral" plays with the idea of the undead, namely Ludwig Asper, requesting a funeral: "You see, [...] I never had a proper going off. It was catch-as-catch-can, you might say; all improvised. Nothing--how shall I put it?--tasty. [...] I always regretted that. [...] I always intended to make up for it" (263).

Of course, when Asper's fellow monsters attend, it doesn't go so smoothly. We have the presence of a witch, the generic disfigured manservant ("Ygor" in this story instead of "Igor"), a "gentleman from Carpathia" (vampire, alluding to Dracula), the Wolfman, and others in attendance. Essentially what we have is the Monster Mash! A graveyard smash!

And every monster who makes an appearance fits his stereotypical image to a tee. So not only is the actual premise of this story humorous, but again it comes back to language and tone. When I began reading, I was filled with sounds and images: I thought of stuffy brocade jackets and cravats of the overly proper 19th century gentlemen,  and, for whatever reason, the narrative voice of Peter O'Toole. After all that, I was crossing my fingers for a bowler hat and monocle to appear.

This may not be the image Matheson wants to plant in his readers' heads, but due to the overly flowery language and diction, it makes for a funny story, but also a cautionary tale. "The Funeral" is a piece-by-piece demonstration to the fiction novice of how NOT to use language in the narrative of a serious, straight piece...unless of course, you want to be viewed as stuffy, antiquated, or unintentionally hilarious. Great vocabulary does not always impress, and can detract from the story. And the beginning novelist who fattens his prose with such wording may ultimately reveal that he has no idea of what he is actually trying to say.

Work Cited

Matheson, Richard. "The Funeral." I Am Legend. Orb Trade Paperback ed. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 1995. 261-69. Print. Ser. October 2007.

28 August 2010

"I Am Legend" by Richard Matheson

2007 Orb edition cover (source).
In my previous post on current despicable trends in the literary market,  a reader noted, 'Too many vampire stories!'  But I'm going to discuss a vampire story with you, a book that is canon.

I Am Legend is considered the best vampire novel since Bram Stoker's Dracula. Its many devotees include Stephen King and Dean Koontz, who admit Matheson's work inspired them to write the horror we read today. I Am Legend debuted in 1954 (!) and was innovative in that it introduced to us the motif of the apocalyptic infection that wipes out mankind. It is also the work that invented the zombie genre, despite the monsters of the novel being vampires.

I feel like I've committed a crime by admitting that I had never heard of Richard Matheson until I was assigned to read I Am Legend for my Horror class at Seton Hill. How can this happen, when I love horror fiction and horror movies?! I definitely had some catching up to do.

In I Am Legend, Robert Neville is the last surviving human in a world where vampirism is real and rampant. It has overtaken everyone, including acquaintances and loved ones, but Neville has proven to be immune. Every night, he stays walled up inside his home as his former friend-turned-vampire Ben Compton taunts him to "Come out!" Every night, a small legion of vampires surrounds Neville's home, ready to pounce on him the moment he opens his door. Every day, Neville braces the extremely visible isolation he faces to scrounge for food and weapons. Every day, Neville finds the courage to sneak into homes and hiding places, searching for slumbering vampires to destroy.

Neville is greeted with the conundrum of having to fight something that no one believed existed--a myth, a superstition, a legend made real. Neville employs science to determine how the vampire exists and evolves, and confirms that vampirism is a disease, a mutated bacterium, and therefore somehow can be cured. He has succeeded in taking the abstract, fictional vampire to transform it into a real, concrete enemy.

This ties in with the title of the novel and its main concept. When Neville examines his role in this new society--a society where there are only vampires, and mankind has disappeared, he sees the role reversal that has taken place. The vampires fear him, for every day Neville steals into their resting places to kill them; he is an assassin. He has become a superstition to them, the hidden killer that strikes fear in the hearts of the undead. And as the last survivor of this pestilence, he has become something that the new society can only dream of and whisper about, this legendary being known as man.

Before I touched the novel, I heard of I Am Legend when it came out as a movie in 2007, starring Will Smith. I liked the film mainly because I remember Will Smith giving a very endearing performance, and in one particular scene, when he ventures out in the empty city to make a survival expedition to the grocery store and neighboring shops.

Since Will Smith is essentially the Last Man On Earth, how long does it take for the symptoms of isolation and loneliness to sink in?

Screenshots of the mannequin scene from the 2007 film. (Source)
The film, and Smith, do an excellent job of showing this to the audience in the shop scene. The stores and neighboring area are littered with mannequins, dressed up and posed as though they are real people going about their daily business...and our lonely, desperate hero converses with them, pleading for interaction.

So this is what I had in my mind just before I opened up the pages to Matheson's novel: the emotional devastation of being truly alone. Would the image from the film, which resonated with me deeply, be eclipsed by Matheson's potent prose?

Both the film and the novel share pivotal emotional scenes that revolve around a stray dog Neville finds during the day. In the novel, Neville spends days and days trying to lure the dog to his home, leaving out trays of food, desperate for the dog's companionship. It's a slow process of waiting and watching, as Neville tries to gain the dog's trust.

Matheson really nails it with some blunt, no-nonsense description and dialogue. Here's an excerpt that I've pared down considerably, but it still packs a punch. During the dog's most recent visit, Neville sees that it is badly injured and possibly infected. He manages to capture the dog and bring it inside his house, to care for him and cure him. I found these scenes to be particularly devastating:
Die, it's going to die, he kept thinking, there's nothing in the world I can do. 
[...] He went on talking intermittently for almost an hour, his voice a low, hypnotic murmuring in the silence of the room. And slowly, hesitantly, the dog's trembling eased off. A smile faltered on Neville's lips as he went on talking, talking. 
'That's right. Take it easy, now. We'll take good care of you.' 
Soon the dog lay still beneath his strong hands, the only movement its harsh breathing. Neville began patting its head, began running his right hand over its body, stroking and soothing. 
'That's a good dog,' he said softly. 'Good dog. I'll take care of you now. Nobody will hurt you. You understand, don't you fella? Sure you do. You're my dog, aren't you?' [...] 
He sat there for hours holding the dog, patting and stroking and talking. The dog lay immobile in his lap, breathing easier. [...] 
He smiled down at the dog, his throat moving. 'You'll be all better soon," he whispered. 'Real soon.' 
The dog looked up at him with its dulled, sick eyes and then its tongue faltered out and licked roughly and moistly across the palm of Neville's hand. 
Something broke in Neville's throat. He sat there silently while tears ran slowly down his cheeks. 
In a week the dog was dead (109-110).

Powerful stuff.

I think the Robert Neville of the 2007 film had it easier than the Robert Neville of the 1954 novel, though I can't begin to imagine what it would be like to barely live in either world.

Movie Robert Neville, as a coping mechanism, reinvented his surroundings with the help of the mannequins. These are the closest representations to an uninfected human being; they are the perfect props because they are lifelike and can be manipulated. Movie Robert Neville can retreat into the comfort of his mind and imagine these "other" people are the friends and neighbors that he lost. It's not so crazy to talk to someone who is standing in front of you, because technically that person is actually, physically there.

Novel Robert Neville is not so lucky. If he wanted to carry on a conversation with another human being, how could he? He doesn't have the same type of visual and physical stimuli that can offset a coping delusion. Novel Robert Neville has nothing that can take the place of a human body. He has books and music that could help him retreat into his imagination, but he isn't able to prevent himself from reliving the past in his mind. He doesn't have the same "crutch" that movie Robert Neville has in order to deal with extreme isolation and loneliness.

This is one of many reasons why I enjoyed reading I Am Legend and preferred it to the film. The film and novel are completely different animals, but both are worthy of your time. One of the consistencies between the two works lies in the emphasis on establishing the plight of the sole survivor. Matheson's book really began this exploration in the horror genre; the film merely contributes to the tradition.

One of the most prominent and consistent fears expressed by people is the fear of being alone. I Am Legend is transcendent in its examination of this fear. I have not yet read another novel that made the sense of isolation so complete, so emotional, and so personal. I hope you are able to read this book and find it as equally troubling and enjoyable as I have.

Work Cited

Matheson, Richard. "I Am Legend." I Am Legend. Orb Trade Paperback ed. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 1995. 11-170. Print. Ser. October 2007.