Sunday, July 12, 2009

REVIEW: I Am Legend

I Am Legend
Author: Richard Matheson
Publisher: Orb/$14.95 (317 pages)
Date of Publication: 1954/1995
Reviewed by James J. Gormley (member, National Book Critics Circle)

The introduction that many people have recently had to Richard Matheson and his classic vampire story, I am Legend, was in the form of the eponymous Warner Brothers' movie from 2007 starring Will Smith.

The version of the film that aired in theatres bore scant resemblance to the classic horror/sci-fi classic novel from 1954, although the original ending (now called the "alternate ending") would have connected more with the core of Matheson's story.

The Robert Neville character in I Am Legend is legendary because, one, he is the very last human who has not been infected by the vampire "germ" and, two, because he has been waging a battle against the vampires for years.

One major difference between the novel and the film is that in Matheson's book there are different kinds of vampires, including people who suffer from a type of vampiric infection that can be controlled. Or can it?

Ultimately, Matheson's Neville is both more simple and more complex than the movie's character, although in the novel (and in the movie's alternate ending) Neville's desperately brutal search to find a cure reveals both a glimpse of the monstrous in what we call human and of the humane in what we call monster.

Friday, July 3, 2009

REVIEW: The New Annotated Dracula

The New Annotated Dracula
Edited by Leslie S. Klinger
Publisher: W.W. Norton/$26.37 (672 pages)
Date of Publication: 2008
Reviewed by James J. Gormley (member, National Book Critics Circle)

Certainly a book review blog devoted to vampire fiction must begin with Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). Although the vampire legend, or mythos, can be traced back thousands of years to such dark deities as the befanged Indian goddess, Kali, the blood-drinking Egyptian power, Sekhmet and a legion of blood/soul/life-sucking succubi of various cultures, the tradition from which Stoker drew his inspiration was mainly from southeastern Europe, the 18th century on.

Although Stoker's Dracula was preceded by other vampiric tales --- such as John William Polidori's The Vampyre (1819), James Malcolm Rymer's Varney, the Vampyre (serialized between 1845-1847), Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's "Camilla" (1872), George du Maurier's Trilby (1894) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Sussex Vampire" (1896) --- it is Stoker's tale that truly established and defined the Dracula and vampire genres.

Klinger's definitive annotated edition of Bram Stoker's Dracula employs the "gentle fiction," or conceit, that Stoker's tale is based on real characters and true events. This device welcomes an exhaustively thorough historical and factual examination of the work that will delight Dracula fans and history buffs alike.

Dracula is a remarkable work from all any perspective. Even from a basic English literary perspective, Stoker's story must surely qualify as one of the first genuinely modern works of fiction.

While Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) is regarded as many as the first English novel, Dracula is extremely modern in its structure, since it is not a conventional narrative at all but is, instead, a collection of first-person, chronologically progressing, diary and journal entries enriched by newspaper clippings. Similar in some structural ways to another landmark English novel, Henry James' Turn of the Screw (serialized in 1898), Dracula offers the jarring, slightly disjointed documentary feel of such modern horror movies as Cloverfield and the Blair Witch Project.

Whether one wishes to believe that Dracula is a true story that has been doctored to protect the identity of certain characters and to make it appear that Dracula is destroyed, or one wishes to simply enjoy the novel for the disturbing gothic nightmare that it is, Klinger's annotated edition surrounds our entree (the story) with a whole banquet hall full of tasty appetizers, tempting side dishes and dark desserts of trivia, facts, observations and insights that provide a panoramic perspective, and context, for every scene and event in the tale.

Klinger is as comfortable drawing references to modern-day interpretations of things vampiric (such as the wildly popular Buffy, the Vampire Slayer) as he is taking us through the fascinating arcana behind Stoker's novel.

Just as Stoker's masterwork is the story against which virtually all vampire fiction is judged --- how faithful to, how different from, and so forth --- Klinger's edition is clearly the definitive text against which all other annotated Dracula editions should be compared.