So here’s another cheerful book! Bearing almost no resemblance to the mediocre Will Smith action movie from a few years back, Richard Matheson’s 1954 novella about the last man on earth is a real heart warmer. Less about bad-ass vampire hunting action and more about the psychological effects of loneliness and fear, I Am Legend was hugely influential in popularising the zombie-apocalypse trope in fiction (despite featuring vampires not zombies) and sixty years later you can still see why.
Robert Neville was an ordinary bloke until a mysterious plague spread across the United States, killing millions and reanimating their bodies as bloodthirsty monsters. Neville survives by turning his house into a self-sufficient castle, fortified with garlic cloves and crucifixes at every window. By day he hunts for the sleeping bodies of vampires to exterminate and dreams up half baked ideas to find a cure for the world-ending disease. I Am Legend updated the traditional idea of vampires in ingenious ways and does a pretty decent job of thinking up plausible sounding causes for all of their famous traits- fear of garlic, crosses, sunlight etc. The scientific rationalisation is pretty interesting in its own right, but the main draw of the book is the effect of isolation on Neville himself as he oscillates between hopeless, alcohol soaked despair and fervent action. Being alone for years on end with the constant terror of death just on his doorstep has unfortunate effects on poor Robert’s sanity, and Matheson does a great job conveying his unstable mental state. As the book progresses Neville tries to find hope in all manner of things- an unattainable cure, a stray dog, and finally a young woman he comes across unexpectedly after years of being alone.
I Am Legend doesn’t stray away from some of the nastier details of what this kind of existence would do to a person. Matheson’s narration becomes increasingly irritable and Neville turns to self destruction, the flashbacks to memories of his wife and daughter’s death (and subsequent resurrection) is heartbreaking, and the descriptions of his repressed sexual urges towards the female zombie-vampires are suitably unsettling. The endless moping and claustrophobic atmosphere can get a little much, but the books relatively short length keeps things from getting too ponderous.
The ending of the book is very different from the most recent film adaptation, and much stranger. (ending spoilers to follow) It is eventually revealed that some of the infected humans found a way to survive with the vampire disease, and have begun to create a vampire society in the ruins of human civilisation. Neville thus realises that where he thought he was exterminating a bunch of monsters, he was actually killing off members of the new dominant species on earth, who think of him in much the same way as humans thought of vampires- as legendary menaces who hunt innocent victims in the night. Sucks for him. He also gets captured by these uber vampires and, awaiting execution, is given the opportunity to end his own life by the vampire woman he met originally who tricked him into thinking she was human. Doubly sucks. Hey, I just realised ‘sucks’ is a good choice of word when writing about vampires.
Despite its unrelenting bleakness and relative lack of action I Am Legend manages to entertain for its whole duration, and the blunt, scattershot writing style only reinforces the desperation Neville experiences in his world of never ending fear and isolation. With a profound, unforgettable ending and a fresh take (even now) on a classic mythology, I Am Legend deserves its reputation as one of the finest post-apocalyptic novels ever written.
Tune in next time, when I might actually review something written this century!
– Review by Paul Ewbank