Chapters as Short Stories

IAmLegend25028It’s well past the middle of the month, so let’s sit down with this month’s entries in The Great Hugo Read. I’d like to start today with the secondary read, Richard Matheson’s landmark vampire novella I Am Legend. Specifically, I’m looking at chapters twelve and thirteen of the novella, which focus on lead character Robert Neville’s attempts to befriend a dog he sees scavenging in his post apocalyptic Compton neighborhood. These chapters stand out from the novella because…well, they stand out from the novella. They present a largely contained subplot of the larger narrative, a short story hiding in the novella.

This shouldn’t surprise. While there is an arching narrative to I Am Legend, it’s primarily an episodic novella, jumping years at a time in between its sections. But there was something about the story of the dog that stood out even more.

First, there’s the manipulative. I’m not going to accuse Matheson of being intentionally manipulative by introducing an injured dog into the story, but few things tug at the heartstrings of a human reader than an injured dog. And it does manipulate Neville. He trusts the dog so much more than he initially trusts Ruth. This is understandable, dogs can’t lie to us the way people can. They don’t delight in our pain the way cats do. They don’t just sit in cages and wait food to eat or a finger to bite like every other mammalian pet does. And they’re not fish. It’s trite to say that dogs have a special relationship with humanity that no other animal species does, but within fiction this is important to remember.

Second, there’s the hope. Leading up to chapter twelve, Neville has been on a downward spiral. I joke that the I Am Legend drinking game is to take a drink every time Neville does, which will get you pretty damn wasted in the early parts of the book, even if you’re stopping to detox after every chapter. The dog is the first reason Neville is given to keep going, the first thing outside of himself to care about. Until then his life was staying alive, but the dog gives him a focus of keeping something else alive. Through the dog he starts getting better. It’s a very hopeful moment for a character surrounded by death and undeath, utterly alone in the world. I Am Legend is, at its heart, a story about isolation, just as much as any deserted island story. Introducing any additional characters into these stories, even if they aren’t human, even if they aren’t even not sporting equipment, changes the dynamic of the stories. And changes the characters. The dog is the first of two transformative elements in I Am Legend, and it’s the first chance to see Neville changing for the better.

Finally, there’s the hammer blow. Perhaps the most powerful sentence of the whole damn book,

In a week the dog was dead.

That’s it. Seven words on a line by themselves at the end of chapter thirteen. In a week the dog was dead. I am trying to remember any sentence in any other novel that has so put me in the position of the character. I can’t. Through two paragraphs the readers are shown Neville befriending the dog, fretting over it, hating himself when he scares it away, being terrified when the dog is injured, triumphant when he finally gets it into his house, despondent when it still shies away from him. And then, in a week the dog was dead.

In those seven words we experience Neville’s world completely. Just as he cared about the dog, we’d cared about both it and him. The rug is then pulled out, hope dashed, and both Neville the character and we the readers see just how hopeless his world is.

Neville goes on to deal with the loss of the dog, with trying to trust hope again when Ruth shows up (spoiler alert, the theme of the novella is that hope will STOMP YOUR HEART INTO A PASTE ON THE SIDEWALK AND LAUGH AS IT DOES SO…well, that and the dual nature of humanity and how do we define “other”). It’s an episode that continues to inform his character, as any portion of an episodic larger work must. But it’s also an episode that stands alone so well on its own, pulls in so much of what make I Am Legend the masterwork it is.

Not every novel is going to have these moments, these little hidden short stories. They’re great for readings, they’re great for sharing, but they don’t always work. To come across one so bang-on is like a little present hidden within the story. We’ll see more of these later in the read when we get to Gaiman’s American Gods, but those are asides to the story, background to the story, not a piece out of the middle. Sure, I can’t imagine American Gods without them, but they’re a different beast.

As we close out month two of the Great Hugo Read, I’d still like to do a compare and contrast of I Am Legend with The Forever Machine, look at the flaws in the latter that give it the reputation of weakest Hugo winner, and do some looking ahead to some potential controversy in 2017’s schedule. Until then, the Nebula Award nominations have posted, and may give some hints as to what we’ll be reading between April and August. If I had to make a guess from that list that we’ll see nominated come April, I’d say look for a copy of 2312.

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