Review – I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Posted by senseichow on April 12, 2007
(I know, I know, I’m supposed to be reading a bunch of other stuff right now, but I saw this baby going cheap on eBay and I couldn’t resist. I have to say, this book just gets better every time you read it.)
Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is probably his best known work. First published in 1954, it tells the story of Robert Neville, the last man alive. A strange plague has turned every other person on Earth into a vampire and Neville must learn to survive in this strange new world.
Holed up in his heavily fortified house, Neville hunts the vampires by day, and by night the vampires hunt him. Or rather, they surround his house and watch and wait for him to make a mistake that would allow them access to the house. In the meantime Neville attempts to investigate the vampire plague and its origins in the hope of finding a cure.
The story is revealed in brief flashback segments. We learn how the dust storms helped spread the vampire plague, how Neville’s wife and child slowly became ill, and then died. We experience Neville’s slow, creeping sense of despair as his wife comes back from the dead and he has to kill her.
The writing is excellent throughout – Matheson does a superb job of conveying the horror of the world Neville lives in, as well as his isolation and the pressure that he’s under. Neville’s day time travels from the house (limited as he needs to be back inside before sunset) are always presented with a real sense of urgency. The clock is ticking, and if Neville is still outside when night comes, the vampires will have him. At one point in the story, while visiting the grave of his dead wife, Neville’s watch stops without him realising, and the feeling of terror and desperation he experiences comes across as very real, and very vivid. His subsequent struggle to get back to the house is easily one of the most gripping segments of the book.
Given his enforced loneliness, a central theme of the book is Neville’s mental state – for the first half of the book he comes across as dangerously unstable, almost snapping several times. He eventually learns to cope with his isolation, and channels his energies towards determining the source of the plague. Disdaining a supernatural explanation as the cause, Neville shows his resourcefulness by turning to science, reading Medical textbooks on Bacteriology and Haematology, and experimenting on the vampires he finds. He realizes the entire plague is bacterial in origin, and discovers logical (within reason, this is SF after all) reasons for a vampire’s aversion to sunlight and garlic, and their vulnerability to being staked. Their aversion to crosses is explained in a slightly tongue in cheek way, as this is put down to purely psychological conditioning amongst Christian vampires. The one Jewish vamp he get to experiment on is unaffected by the Cross, but does react to a copy of the Torah.
The title of the book, I Am Legend, refers to the fact that once, vampires themselves were legends, but no longer. Neville, the last surviving human, has become that legend. Many of the vampires have never seen Neville, and are only aware of him from the corpses of vampires executed by him every day. Despite hunting him, they live in constant terror of him.
In all, this is a superb book which, in its day, set the standards for vampires for a long time to come. It was the inspiration for a whole genre (George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead was initially based on this book) and thoroughly deserves its place in the SF Masterworks imprint.
And for you lazy bastards out there who can’t be bothered reading it, there’s a film adaptation (the third so far), I Am Legend, starring Will Smith, that’s due out later this year 🙂