Richard Matheson's short novel (173 pages in trade paperback) is a revelation of economy. The prose here is crisp and tidy, the imagery vivid and clear. Matheson's Robert Neville is clearly more conflicted than the character we saw played by Will Smith in the the most recent film adaptation. He's haunted, literally, by the loss of his wife Virginia, who comes back from the grave to feast on his blood. In one heart-wrenching scene Neville recounts the pain of having to drive a stake through his own wife's heart. He discusses burning his daughter in a hundred-foot deep crater with the rest of the infected, the torment dripping from the page. He medicates himself with whiskey and chain smokes, a far different portrayal than the ultra-fit Neville we saw on the big screen recently.
As is often the case, the book is better, though much, much darker than the film. I haven't seen Omega Man, so I don't know how close that one is to the book, but I'd love it if a production company would greenlight Matheson's story as it was written. I'd love to see the handling of the night people's adaptation to living in the sunlight and I'd love to see the evolution of the relationship between Neville and Ben Cortman.
And the conclusion! I love the fact that Neville is revered (hey, I saw this recently in Jeremiah Johnson) and feared by the night people, so much so that they must execute him. He becomes legend and myth in this final scene, and for all of his torment and misery throughout the course of the story, it's truly an appropriate finish. This is a masterwork and deserves an 'A' grade.
On the other hand, I'd give The Halloween Tree a C/C-. I love Ray Bradbury. I know that nostalgia and sweeping descriptions of childhood are his literary signatures, and I often find them enchanting. But in this case, the book was stuffed to bursting with it and it becomes too sappy for my tastes. See, sometimes Bradbury's wicked also, and it's that version of Ray I should have been looking for. This piece, by the way, seems geared toward young adults and I'm sure that a great many fell in love with it when it was first written in the early '70s.