The science fiction horror novel, I am Legend, imagines a post-apocalyptic world in which a pandemic decimates the human population. The first casualties of the pandemic rise again and walk the earth at night as vampiric creatures until everyone is either infected or feasted upon. Everyone, that is, except Robert Neville.
Robert Neville, the last surviving resident of Los Angeles, remains behind. Having lost his small family and everyone he knows to the disease, Neville drowns his loneliness and grief in alcohol and his now mundane routine of survival. But as time goes on, and the vampires continue to roam at night, Neville desperately seeks out the pandemic’s cause and a cure- even as he kills the slumbering creatures during the day.
But when new revelations turn Neville’s new normal upside-down, he must learn what it means to be human in a post-human world.
I am Legend surprised me. Thanks to the movie, I had very different picture in my mind of the setting, plot, and protagonist than what was presented in the book. Indeed, the character’s physical description aside, Robert Neville of the novel is not Robert Neville of the film. In my opinion, Matheson’s creation is better. He is a more cohesive, developed character, whose flaws, excesses, anger, and curiosity drive the plot forward and make its climax and conclusion all the more successful.
In contrast to the film, Neville is an average, working class man- totally average, actually- except, being neither dead nor undead, he is the only human unchanged by the virus. Suddenly, his average-ness is unique in a world of corpses and monsters.
This fact generates so much impetus for the plot as we watch Neville wrestle with his wretched and lonely humanity. By day he is in survival mode in almost Castaway fashion; he shores up his home, repairs the destruction of the night before, stocks up on supplies, and, finds more efficient ways to mass exterminate the vampires he finds. By night, Neville endures the existential horror of the screaming horde outside, which, with some semblance of humanity, call out his name and pantomime seduction. How does the last human deal with the incredible loss, the unbelievable loneliness, and the constant companion of violent death crouching beyond his door? The book and the questions it asks prove a fascinating study of the human mind and will to survive.
For the most part I enjoyed the writing, although there are points where it gets a bit too “science-y” for me and my eyes glazed over. There is a lot of introspection and analysis on Neville’s part, and that seems to take precedence over the dramatic presentation of the action that ought to be inherent in a world overrun by vampires. I can see that’s not really Matheson’s point, but a few more suspenseful scenes could have easily made the novel more compelling.
My favorite part- and indeed Matheson’s crowning jewel- is the end of the story. I won’t spoil it here, but it was the right way to do it. And, unlike the movie version, the statement “I am legend” packs a cathartic punch. (You’ll understand when you read it!)
In summary, despite its few shortcomings, I am Legend is a successful and seminal work in the modern supernatural horror genre. It seems to me like source material in the many iterations of zombie/vampire lore we see in the genre today.
Have you read I am Legend and/or seen the movie? What are your thoughts?