I haven't finished reading all of them included in "I Am Legend"; I stopped after the one with the funeral director and the guy who wants his own funeral while he's alive.
For me, Matheson's writing has been very dense, highly descriptive, and oftentimes so involved in prose that it either skips or I end up missing parts of the story because he hadn't bothered to cover them. I'm not faulting him for it so much as I am just complaining that it makes some stories harder to follow.
But my main point for bringing up a discussion is that many of the stories are left rather open to interpretation, or rather left without anything much at all.
I'd prefer to go by a story-by-story basis. Spoilers will follow.
I Am Legend: I understood the story, and the function of the bacterium. But I still feel confused by it. I'm not so sure why, or what it was that confused me. I think my primary issue is a sort of haziness in the difference between "living" vampires and "dead" ones. What's the difference? Just some time in which the vampires have been living?
Buried Talents: This one just blinded me. I did not get it at all. So a guy in a black coat manages to get every single ping-pong ball into the exact same empty fishbowl, doesn't want any prize except the steak knives, and suddenly as he leaves the carny guy is (presumably) dying and in massive pain. What the hell was that? I did not get this story at all.
The Near Departed: If I got it right, this one was cute in a horrifying sort of way. Reminds me of that joke with the two hunters, one calling 911 and the operator saying 'make sure he's dead' and the hunter shooting the other one. Simple and straightforward. I think. Matheson's style makes me believe perhaps there was something deeper to the story I completely missed.
Prey: Also straight-forward. I got it. I hated this story the most, though, partly because it was so senseless, just He-Who-Kills randomly wanting to kill the woman just because. What angered me the most was just how absolutely stupid the woman was. Even I didn't know that killing it would unleash its spirit, but I was still screaming in frustration at the woman's sheer stupidity "KILL THE FREAKING THING~!". I almost put down the book never to return when the woman FINALLY caught the doll, then LEFT it to go and try to open the front door.
Witch War: Another one of those that are pretty straightforward, but left me thinking I missed something that may have been beneath the surface. I also thought it was rather ridiculous, and kind of pointless. Oh hey, witches! They do magic to kill enemy soldiers in No-Name Land against No-Name People in PG Center. Why were we reading this again? Seemed like just an exercise in reading ACTION POW POW POW sequences.
Dance of the Dead: Easily the best story aside from I Am Legend. I even managed to barely grasp the whole "Popeye and Olive Oyl" alliteration (wrong word choice?) between That Guy and Peggy. Was legitimately terrified by the final pages' revelation of the meaning of the term L.U.P. Exactly the sort of feelings of loner dread when I was younger going out with friends to a place I greatly feared I wouldn't make it back home alive from.
Dress of White Silk: I think I got this one. I think. So the little girl is a vampire, right? And her mother is a vampire? And she killed Mary Jane by sucking all her blood out? That's why Granma sent her to her room and she said she didn't need supper, she was full? And why Mary Jane said her mother had buck teeth? I still feel like I totally missed something in the story. It seemed at first too easy a puzzle to figure out that the girl is a vampire, helped along further by the prevelance of vampires in "I Am Legend" itself.
Madhouse: I greatly enjoyed this one. I thought it should be longer. And I think it would be a great movie, or TV short, if expanded some. My main problem was that it was a little too short to get too in-depth. Also, I had had a feeling that maybe Chris Neal should have realized that the whole traumatic experiences he was having was JUST what he needed to write a story! Every so often it would have inner monologue paragraphs that were almost like poetry in their succintness and description of his anger.
I felt like I missed something from the end, too. The whole "psionic anger transmitting to animate his house with anger" thing felt a little contrived, but with potential, and the ending was for me, too open to interpretation. I could easily imagine beating up a friend for interpreting it stupidly ("The house came alive~!"), while my interpretation was that his anger had quite literally driven him insane, and he went to kill himself, but in his psychotic state, believed the house was trying to kill him.
Funeral: This one was just like Buried Talents in that I did not get it at all. For the story, I got a big guy wants a funeral for himself, but without dying. He brings his friends to it, who keep making noise and stupidity, and then the woman kills one of them and "accidentally" sets the room on fire. Then a tentacle monster appears at the end for his own funeral. The hell? Seriously... someone please explain this one and "Buried Talents" to me, because this completely flew over my head.
I'm not entirely sure if I have completely all of the symbolism understood myself, but I can at least give you my interpretation of the hidden meanings to the stories. I can also do my best to answer any further questions you have about the book, and the stories therein. I'll start, and continue in the same order as you presented your questions.
1. I Am Legend: The Dead Vampires are the only true vampires, and the "Living" Vampires, are only people who think they are vampires. These "Living" Vampires are merely insane.
2. Buried Talents: The impression that I got from the story, is that the man in the black suit had telekinesis, which explains how he was able to make all the ping-pong balls land in the fish bowl. At the end, I believe that the man in the black suit caused internal bleeding, or a rupture of some organ to the carnival man, as a punishment for not allowing him to play as much as he wanted.
3. The Near Departed: I believe that this is just a straight-forward, slightly ironic, completely predictable story. If there was any deeper meaning to the story, it went completely over my head. In such cases as those, I tend to take things as I see them. After all the story is only about two or three pages long as it is. How much more symbolism, and how many more subtleties can you fit into that much space?
4. Prey: I agree that it was a bad decision on the part of the woman to open the door to check on the doll once she had gotten it into the oven. If I was in that situation I would just leave it in there, until the house burned down, or until I had to use the oven again.
5. Witch War: On the surface the story is pretty straight-forward, but I believe that the story was also a metaphor, or allegory. I may be wrong, but I think that this story was a metaphor for dating. The reason I think this is, that the story specifically says that the girls were "pretty." Then you have hundreds of guys for each girl, to me the symbolism is obvious. I could go into further detail if you want, all you have to do is ask.
6. Dance Of The Dead: Again I agree that the full definition of L.U.P. is terrible, and horrifying.
7. Dress Of White Silk: I don't think that any of the people in this story are vampires. My interpretation of the story is as follows: the girl obviously obsessed over her mother, and anything associated with her mother. This obsession was so strong that it was almost to the point of worship. When the girl's mother died however, she was entirely disillusioned, because she thought that her mother would never die. As such, she pretends that everything is still fine, and creates an imaginary fantasy world, and fantasy image of her mother, instead of the customary practice of mourning. This fantasy world becomes so realistic, that the girl eventually fails to distinguish between reality, and fiction. This happens not only with the associations with the girl's mother, but in other parts of her life as well, and so when she says she's full at the end, she is only pretending that she is full, but she is unaware that she is pretending. This blur between fantasy, and reality, is the reason, I believe, that the grandmother scolded the girl (although keep in mind that I may be completely off base here).
8. Mad House: The ending of this story is a little open-ended, but even though it may be "contrived" as you have stated, I'm just going to accept the simple explanation that the house killed Chris.
9. The Funeral: I believe that the man who orders his own funeral is a ghost. That is why, I think, all of his "friends" are monsters, or beings from horror fiction. The woman who sets the room on fire, seems like a witch to me. As for the tentacled monster, I can't explain why he wanted his own funeral (although I'm not quite sure that he did), but in effect, because of the ghost ordering his funeral, that funeral parlor becomes THE place for supernatural funerals.
10. From Shadowed Places: This is one of the only stories that I didn't understand, so you'll have to ask someone else about it, when you read it (that is if you have any questions).
11. Person To Person: I understand the story on a basic level, but even I have a question about this story. Why was the guy hearing voices in his head anyway, regardless of the source?
I hope that I sorted some things out with my reply, although I may be completely wrong with all of my answers.
From Shadowed Places: Another one I go "... the hell?" at. It seemed straightforward enough, but the entire thing played out like it was supposed to have a twist ending or a secret subplot or something of the sort. But it didn't.
Person To Person: A little too straight-forward, just like "Prey", but in a sort of way that is left way too wide open for interpretation. I had to re-read the last two pages because I felt like I had missed something highly crucial or something.
The disctinction between living and dead vampires in I Am Legend isn't difficult to understand. The bacteria infects people and turns them into vampires. The ones who die are reanimated by the bacteria and become dead vampires. The ones who are outside of Neville's house every night and are totally insane and animalistic are dead vampires. The living vampires are people who are still alive but infected by the bacteria.
Isn't there any greater distinction beyond behavioral, and/or physical decay undergone before the corpses are re-animated?
And as a matter of religious beliefs, would these corpses even still be "people" given that they have died, or would the virus essentially be re-activating their brains and creating "husks" with the person's old personality intact, but without the person's "soul", creating that distinct difference between "Dead Vampires: Evil" and "Living Vampires: Normal"?
Ok. "Buried Talents" The man in the black wrinkled suit DIDN'T want the steak knives. He vaguely addresses those items from the "top shelf." "The man in the black suit pointed at the items on top of the wooden shelves-a four-slic electric toaster, a short wave radio, a drill set and a portable typewriter." But even that is vague. He could want nothing at all. It's never truely stated. The ambiguity is key. I think its commenting on the routine in our lives as human beings. When something out of the routine happens (like someone being able to put a ball in the same bowl cosistently), we become scared and angry and attempt to stop it. The fact that the fat man finally does stop the change in a sense and is killed by an unnatural force for doing so, shows that change is unstoppable and that routine will only cause the extinction of who we need to be.
"Prey" I got the impression that the doll and the incident never really happened, but were just a product of her mind turning on its self. There is no spirit, just the woman. The lack of control in her life drove her to insanity and selfishness drove her to becoming He Who Kills. I think it's Matheson's comment on how each person has He Who Kills inside of us, and no matter where we hide (the bathroom, the closet) and no matter how we fight (the suitcase), He Who Kills becomes us.
"Dress of White Silk" I have no idea where you got the vampire girl from. This isn't Twilight, and disease is not a prevailent motif. It makes no sense. I think it just shows the insanity that can be caused by grief (or rather just emotion). The young, deranged girl is so affected by someone's death, she lives in a world where it almost never happened. She lives a lie. Her anger at Mary Jane causes her to kill Mary Jane I presume, though the ending of Mary Jane is ambiguous. Human emotion is what mades us so...different, and so dangerous. We have fury like nothing else. Without it, we could never become what we are supposed to be; which is He Who Kills.
Your analysis of "Dress of White Silk" makes sense, but I think you're ignoring two key facts; the girl talking about her "buck teeth" and the fact that she says he feels "full" and didn't need supper after killing Mary Jane.
People in the real world have bucked teeth and are not vampires. The young girl may not see the bucked teeth (a symbol of the imperfections of her idol) because she wants to stay in her fantasy world. The world where everything involving her mother is perfect and natural. Full doesnt necesarily mean full from food. Even if it does, I would go with cannabalism before I went to an explanation of vampire. Sure, Matheson is a sci-fi writer at times, but not at all times. Even the "vampires" in I Am Legend are not truely vampires at all times. But, even those have details to back up the explanation of "vampire." I think the word full just comes from her sastifaction at protecting her fantasy, and the emotions she feels towards it. Not being full of Mary Jane. You need better proof from the text to convince others of your vampire analysis.
The man has some sort of supernatural ability, probably telekinesis. As I understood it (after rereading the ending a couple times), he psychically basically put the steak knives into the proprietor's stomach, killing him from the inside without seeming to physically do anything, since he wouldn't let him (the man in black) play anymore.
Also, I think that both interpretations of "Dress of White Silk" are good, but I'm inclined to go with the vampire one since the grandma says "it's happened" or something to that effect, which could indicate that the little daughter has finally shown her vampire nature. Although it could also just be proximity to "I Am Legend" that leads to this theory.
I came away with the impression that the little girl was cannibalistic, which really creeped me out because it was written so innocently, and then you have this huge contrast of her being a mad killer. I also wondered if she had killed her mother as well.
I don't get From Shadowed Places yet, I think I'm going to read up on that poem and see if there's anything hidden. Just the way he gripped the steering wheel tightly at the end and said "Use your mind!", it made me think the Dr. had just realized something important.
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For I am Legend, people get infected with vampiris until they die a slow death. Once they are killed by the virus, they are reanimated as true Vampires. They people who are still living are infected by Vampiris, but they feed Vampiris the blood required to survive so that Vampiris doesn't kill them.
At the end of Buried Talents, the man looks and sees that the steak knives are gone. The man that was winning the carnival game had used his talents to put the steak knives in the body of the Fat Man.