On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.
Robert Neville is an ordinary man; and therein lies the problem. For every other man, woman and child on the face of the earth has been transformed into a shambling, horrifying vampire. Thus, for Robert Neville, the days are days of grinding, drudging toil and the nights are nights of loneliness and terror.
If that last sentence seems to speak simply of man’s existential dilemma and not simply of the scourge of vampirism, you are perhaps correct. Matheson may not have intended this; his forte was simply tales of ordinary men in extraordinarily horrifying circumstances. But this book manages to make concrete the difficulty of connection, the loneliness of the outsider, the fear of the outcast.
It’s a book of much despair, of sexual frustration, of groping for understanding, of desperate hunger for companionship, any kind of companionship. The back cover blurb of the edition that I read trumpets that it is “one of the ten best vampire novels of all time.” I’d love to see a list of the other nine; I doubt a one of them is even half as good as this one. As Neville strives to understand, he brings the modern mind to bear; superstition must fall away as Neville understands the plague nature of the disease. Where the original Dracula is a romanticized high concept novel, a collection of letters that are as boring as most letters are, this book is a tense story of a man trapped, utterly trapped, utterly alone, utterly confused.
It’s a breezy book, however, barely over a hundred and fifty pages and it moves like a wildfire, riveting, terrifying. It’s in reading the occasional book like this that one remembers just how dead and rote most horror novels are; truly Matheson was a literary light.
Most serious critics look down on what they tend to call ‘genre’ books; thrillers, horror novels, romances, mysteries. And this book is a reminder of the utter blindness caused by that mentality. This is a truly transcendent book, leaping out of its genre and across the bar into complete brilliance.
It is in those final chapters that the book achieves a strange sort of symmetry; the book becomes what it has always seemed to be in the spaces between words, a meditation on the nature of society and the outsider, of mores and morality. In the world in which it was written, it was perhaps a response to the growing Cold War; in today’s world, it’s a staggering meditation on what line exactly stands between good and evil and how quickly and simply it can be crossed, not just once, but again and again, back and forth, back and forth.
Staggering storytelling, taut and brisk prose, a metaphorical and haunting story. Some would say a book needs more to be great; some would argue without shame that it needs less. No great book can be written about something as ridiculous as vampirism, some seem to argue. It’s the only reason I can think of that this doesn’t appear on more top 100 lists. They are as wrong as they can be; as with the truly great horror, the horror is only a starting place, only a symbol for a greater ill. Be the person next to you vampire or only another human, they are startlingly other, radically difficult to connect with and uniquely perceptive. The realization is that, could we but see through the eyes of the man or woman next to us, we might see ourselves and our own world in a completely different light. In the dark, haunted house of this world, there may be ghosts and monsters in the shadows, but the most paralyzing shock always comes with the glimpse of the figure in the mirror.
5 out of 5 stars.