There are always writers that we know we should have read earlier — that got set aside for something more pressing or beguiling. For me, whilst I have read many, many writers, from the sublime to the ridiculous, the list seems endless. I’ve still to read anything by Dostoevsky, Gunter Grass is waiting patiently on the pile with Tolstoy (though I have read Anna Karenina), Isaac Asimov has only just been discovered and I can’t imagine ever subjecting myself to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
But with many, we do get around to reading them eventually. And one such case in point is, for me, Richard Matheson, American screenwriter and author of, amongst other things, the wonderfully crafted novel I Am Legend.
I had always intended to read Matheson. Many of the writers I grew up reading, whose work I then admired, cited him as a major influence and it seemed ridiculous not to go back and see “where they came from”. So his name got added to the ever-growing list and, sure enough, in time he was taken over by (positively drowned in) more “important” writers.
Until recently when Mike happened to mention his name in passing (I think in relation to the new movie version of the book — which, by all accounts, bears little resemblance to the original product.) My memory jogged, I went along to Amazon immediately and popped a copy in my shopping basket. It arrived months ago and I’m ashamed to say I’ve only just made time for it (if I’m truthful, as a way of avoiding War and Peace, which was slated as one of my summer reads but which may have to stay on the “to read” list well into the autumn!)
In many ways, I’m kind of glad that I did leave it this long. If I had read it in my youth, I may simply have seen it as yet another vampire novel — albeit a highly accomplished one — and if I had plunged straight in when the novel arrived, and whilst I was still up to my neck in writing Children of the Resolution, I may have been too distracted to lose myself completely in its subtleties.
I Am Legend is more than just a horror/SF novel. A clever, well paced study of isolation and loss — of how personal standards, beliefs, motivations and needs mutate in ways that we might not have imagined — it entertains and makes the reader think… more than that, Matheson makes it incredibly easy to empathise with the protagonist, Robert Neville. The stages and crises of character development are perfectly honed, crafted with a finesse that most of us can only dream of. The unbelievable becomes palpable, beyond question or doubt, and this more than anything makes me know that I will not be leaving the rest of Matheson’s fiction on the list for too much longer.
Based on this, all those more “important” writers don’t even come close.