Hmph. She didn't crumble to dust. Guess you weren't a vampire after all. Sorry, honey.
You may remember we started on a set of Richard Matheson books several months ago, long before we were thinking about COVID-19, and I Am Legend was always third on the list. There are so many books and stories about humanity being wiped out by flus and viruses. We thought this was one of them. We don't know why, but that was our assumption. The book, though, is actually about vampires. The novel first appeared in 1954, and the Corgi Books edition you see here was published in 1960. The story follows the day-to-day—and night-to-night—existence of man named Robert Neville who lives in a Los Angeles house, from which he kills vampires and forages for food by sunlight, but to which he must retreat every sunset lest he be consumed by rampaging bloodsuckers. He might be the last man on Earth, but how can he know? He's basically tethered to his house as far as a tank of gas can carry him—half to go someplace, half to get back. In that radius he's seen nothing but desolation and vampires.
Most of the narrative deals with him trying to decipher vampire biology as a way to cure or kill them. Everything is covered, from why they hate crosses to why wooden stakes kill them, and the idea of a virus is actually touched upon as a cause of their condition, which is perhaps where we got our mistaken ideas about the book. The science is interesting, but the point is terror and isolation, as the main character's survival is complicated by his occasional bouts of carelessness and despair. Setting aside the usual 1950s social attitudes that don't strike harmonious chords today, the book is effective, and, in parts, legitimately scary. The concept resulted in four film adaptations—1964's The Last Man on Earth, 1971's The Omega Man, and 2007's I Am Legend and I Am Omega. When a book is that kind of cinematic gold mine, you expect it to be good, and it is. We'd even call it a horror monument.
Instead of fighting about this, let's compromise. My soul will go to church with you while my body stays in bed.
Julian Paul does top work on this cover for Richard Matheson's 1953 thriller Fury on Sunday. Paul painted some nice covers for men's adventure magazines as well, two of which we showed you here and here. We read this novel, and from a complex intro that hurries to introduce five main characters, it settles into a streamlined narrative of people stalked and held hostage by a madman. Of the captives—the coward, the tart, the everyman, and the good girl—we knew right away who would be killed, which dampened some of the suspense. Another problem is that the characters do not make the smartest decisions, sometimes to the point of straining credulity. If Fury on Sunday were a horror movie they'd all be murder bait, pretty much. For those reasons the book, Matheson's second, resides in the same not-fully-realized territory as his first, Someone Is Bleeding, also published in 1953. But in 1954 he would strike gold. That year he published I Am Legend, which is a sci-fi classic and became a movie four different times. We have that book lined up for later.
Some wounds are too serious to ever heal.
Sometimes authors stumble upon themes that are ahead of their time. Richard Matheson's debut novel, 1953's Someone Is Bleeding, is highly improbable in its details, but his central character, Peggy Lister, is an interesting creation from the pre-#MeToo age. Perceived by men as beautiful while still a child, raped at age ten, molested by her father, as an adult she reacts in unpredictable ways to constant, unwanted male advances. Basically, she's a PTSD sufferer before that term existed, and before there were many, or any, aid mechanisms or understanding about the issue. It's clear Matheson has sympathy for her, but his narrative pre-supposes that her reactions aren't normal. It's a fine line. Matheson understands that Peggy is traumatized, but there's a bubbling undercurrent of suggestion that she should be able to somehow just get over it. This one is a pass, we think, because of a few too many cringes. Luckily for Matheson, he quickly improved and soon became an important writer.
Spielberg’s debut film about an everyman who battles a homicidal truck driver gets better with each passing year.
Stephen Spielberg’s road thriller Duel was a made for television movie. Watching it, you’d think Hollywood would have immediately taken notice that this was a guy who was going places. But surprisingly, it took another three years for Spielberg to get his first shot at the big screen. He’s since made twenty-five films and become one of the most celebrated directors in history, having created iconic films like Jaws and Schindler’s List. But Duel remains, in our opinion, one of his best efforts. If you haven’t seen it, the Richard Matheson penned script tells the story of a lone driver menaced by a demonic Peterbuilt eighteen-wheeler guided by a trucker we never quite get to see. Dennis Weaver absolutely nails his performance as a terrified man who reaches the end of his wits, only to push through his own fear to fight back. With little dialogue, no real subplot, and a desolate desert setting, Duel is a brutally straightforward movie that has aged well. Highly recommended. The two-panel poster above was made for the film’s theatrical premiere in Japan in 1973.
I see dead people. Not next week's lottery numbers. Not future stock fluctuations. Just useless, creepy dead people.
Richard Matheson was a well known writer who published many novels and short stories, penned teleplays for The Twilight Zone, and wrote the novel Psycho—which later became Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller—but his 1962 supernatural novel A Stir of Echoes is a bit obscure. It's probably better known as a 1999 movie starring the ubiquitous Kevin Bacon. The story here deals with a man whose talent as a medium is accidentally unleashed when he's hypnotized at a party. The book isn't elegantly written. A typical sentence: He walked weavingly toward the door. But you don't have to be a master stylist to tell a good story and that's what Matheson did over the course of his long career, churning out great concept after great concept, here unspooling the tale of a man who can't control his unbidden psychic talent. With the power to see the future, the protagonist gains unwanted knowledge of kidnapping, adultery, a shooting, and other violent and nightmarish occurrences. It defies belief that all this happens in a week or two on a formerly quiet suburban street, but A Stir of Echoes is an entertaining story with a nice twist ending. We haven't seen the movie but we're curious now.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1969—The Krays Are Found Guilty of Murder
In England, twins Ronald and Reginald Kray are found guilty of the murder of Jack McVitie. The Kray brothers had been notorious gangsters in London's East End, and for their crimes both were sentenced to life in prison, and both eventually died behind bars. Their story later inspired a 1990 motion picture entitled The Krays.
1975—Charlie Chaplin Is Knighted
British-born comic genius Charlie Chaplin, whose long and turbulent career in the U.S. had been brought to an abrupt end when he was branded a communist and denied a residence visa, is bestowed a knighthood at London's Buckingham Palace. Chaplin died two years later and even then peace eluded him, as his body was stolen from its grave for eleven weeks by men trying to extort money from the Chaplin family.
1959—Lou Costello Dies
American comedian Lou Costello, of the famous comedy team Abbott & Costello, dies of a heart attack at Doctors' Hospital in Beverly Hills, three days before his 53rd birthday. His career spanned radio and film, silent movies and talkies, vaudeville and cinema, and in his heyday he was, along with partner Abbott, one of the most beloved personalities in Hollywood.
1933—King Kong Opens
The first version of King Kong
, starring Bruce Cabot, Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray, and with the giant ape Kong brought to life with stop-action photography, opens at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The film goes on to play worldwide to good reviews and huge crowds, and spawns numerous sequels and reworkings over the next eighty years.
1949—James Gallagher Completes Round-the-World Flight
Captain James Gallagher and a crew of fourteen land their B-50 Superfortress named Lucky Lady II in Fort Worth, Texas, thus completing the first non-stop around-the-world airplane flight. The entire trip from takeoff to touchdown took ninety-four hours and one minute.
1953—Oscars Are Shown on Television
The 26th Academy Awards are broadcast on television by NBC, the first time the awards have been shown on television. Audiences watch live as From Here to Eternity wins for Best Picture, and William Holden and Audrey Hepburn earn statues in the best acting categories for Stalag 17 and Roman Holiday.
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