For years, I have been hearing about how Richard Matheson was one of the pioneers of horror fiction. Two of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, have cited him as a major influence. As Halloween was approaching, I thought it would be a delight to read two of his most legendary tales. My book also contained a sampling of some of Matheson’s short stories, which I will also discuss below.
42. I Am Legend
Robert Neville is alone in the world, having survived a terrible epidemic that swept the Earth, killing people and turning them into vampires. During the day, the creatures go into a coma-like state and at night they come out to attack Robert’s house which he has turned into a fortress against them. Robert’s life has become one of survival as he spends his days obtaining supplies, strengthening his home, and killing a few of the creatures as they sleep. His nights are filled with loneliness, anguish, and the fear that one day the vampires will penetrate his stronghold. Attempting to learn everything he can about the creatures, Robert’s sole purpose in life becomes about eradicating the vampires and hoping that there are others like him out there.
As a lover of horror fiction, I really enjoyed reading I Am Legend. Neville’s daily survival is interesting as well as his thoughts on the vampires. We begin to get flashbacks to Neville’s life before the plague and learn about what happened to his family. I thought the exploration into Neville’s past was handled well as it didn’t take over the main story too much. This book has a very claustrophobic feel and the tension is present throughout particularly at night when the vampires taunt Neville outside of his house. The vampires in this story are your classic ones that cannot be in the sunlight, hate garlic and mirrors, as well as a revulsion to crosses. I loved how Matheson approached this angle through the character of Neville as he attempts to use the scientific method to better understand why these vampires succumb to such things. Neville uses science in order to hopefully understand the creatures and find a way to stop them. We also get a lot of insight into Neville’s desire for human contact and the longing he feels. You really begin to feel his hate for vampires and the joy he feels from slaughtering them in their sleep. At times, his very human needs become disturbing such as when he finds what he believes to be another human female.
I have not seen the Will Smith version of this story, nor do I know if I want to other than out of morbid curiosity. I’m guessing it’s the same basic story but maybe with lots of shouting.
This book also had a great twist in the end that I didn’t see coming at all. Matheson managed to take a work of horror and weave in a very important philosophical debate as well. In fact, I am still thinking about it even though I finished it a couple of weeks ago. It definitely is a great read for all you fellow fans of horror, and it’s also a short read which moves along at a solid pace.
43. Hell House
Dr. Lionel Barrett, a physicist with an interest in parapsychology, is hired by a dying millionaire to investigate the most haunted mansion in America in the hopes of discovering life after death. Located in the remote mountains of Maine, the house was once owned by Emeric Belasco. During his life, Belasco used the house as a veritable den of debauchery which included all manners of sex and violence. The Belasco house has earned the name “Hell House” due to its reporting of demonic activity. Barrett is given one week to explore the house accompanied by two mediums (Florence Tanner and Benjamin Fischer) to assist. Fischer is hesitant to return to Hell House as he was the only surviving member of the previous exploration party. Barrett’s wife Edith also accompanies the excursion due to her fears of being left alone. As the group begin their exploration into the most haunted mansion of America, strange events begin to unfold leading to the darkest emotional and physical traumas they have ever experienced.
Prior to reading this work, I would list The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and The Shining by Stephen King as my favorite of the “haunted house” sub-genre of horror. After reading Matheson’s work, I would still put the other two as far better but this is a great read if you like really dark pulp horror fiction. This novel has a very different feel from the previous I Am Legend. Matheson does a great job of creating this sense of menace that slowly grows with each passing day. Events continue to escalate as we work to figure out what exactly is happening. Matheson is not ashamed to go full out gore in the later chapter as these characters are thrust into some of the most gruesome scenarios I’ve ever read.
One complaint I have about this novel is that I didn’t care for any of the characters to any significant degree. Matheson does well in outlining the internal struggles concerning each of the four players, but I just did not find them very likable. Perhaps if more had been done to explore their characters prior to entering the house. Dr. Barrett is desperate to prove his latest invention a success-a machine that will destroy all of the house’s negative energies. His wife Edith is in the midst of a mental crisis and has been repressed sexually for her entire life. Florence Tanner is a psychic medium with a strong desire to rescue any spirits that have become trapped in the house. Then there’s Benjamin Franklin Fischer, the physical medium who was once the most heralded medium in American during his younger days. But his experience in Hell House, thirty years ago ruined him despite getting out of the house with his life. Now, he’s returned to face those demons and hopefully protect the others from tragedy. Whatever force is invading the house is manipulating each person psychologically, playing each one against the other. Despite how interesting these characters sound, I just got irritated by them a lot. However, the plot is quite riveting once it gets going, and if you love a story with lots of sex and gore, then this is your novel.
I was impressed by the ten short stories included in this book. Matheson is an impressive writer, and these stories show a great range in talent-from the gruesome to the fun and light-hearted. My favorite story had to be the one about an undead vampire who goes to a funeral parlor in order to give himself the proper funeral that was robbed from him. It is a very funny story that had me laughing out loud. One story that really frightened me was about a young woman who is attacked in her apartment by a demonic doll.
One story that didn’t really do it for me was entitled “From Shadowed Places,” where a rich, playboy has a curse put on him by a Zulu witch doctor while he is trophy hunting in Africa. Fortunately his fiance has an old friend who spent some time in Africa under the tutelage of a witch doctor. This friend turns out to be a very busty African American woman who basically saves the playboy by dancing naked in front of him, the fiance, and his future father-in-law before having sex with him and taking the demon into herself. At times, I felt like I was reading a work of disturbing erotica rather than a horror story. This was another complaint I had about Hell House as Matheson spends a lot of time describing Florence’s breasts as well as the repressed sexual desires of Edith Barrett. While I don’t have a problem in the slightest with sex in a story, it often felt like the woman characters were there to serve the male readership of the time.
Despite my complaints, I will say Matheson definitely made my Halloween reading a bit spookier, and I wouldn’t be against reading more from him. I can definitely see his influence on modern writers like King and Bradbury.
“The keynote of minority prejudice is this: They are loathed because they are feared.”- I am Legend
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