28 August 2010

"I Am Legend" by Richard Matheson

2007 Orb edition cover (source).
In my previous post on current despicable trends in the literary market,  a reader noted, 'Too many vampire stories!'  But I'm going to discuss a vampire story with you, a book that is canon.

I Am Legend is considered the best vampire novel since Bram Stoker's Dracula. Its many devotees include Stephen King and Dean Koontz, who admit Matheson's work inspired them to write the horror we read today. I Am Legend debuted in 1954 (!) and was innovative in that it introduced to us the motif of the apocalyptic infection that wipes out mankind. It is also the work that invented the zombie genre, despite the monsters of the novel being vampires.

I feel like I've committed a crime by admitting that I had never heard of Richard Matheson until I was assigned to read I Am Legend for my Horror class at Seton Hill. How can this happen, when I love horror fiction and horror movies?! I definitely had some catching up to do.

In I Am Legend, Robert Neville is the last surviving human in a world where vampirism is real and rampant. It has overtaken everyone, including acquaintances and loved ones, but Neville has proven to be immune. Every night, he stays walled up inside his home as his former friend-turned-vampire Ben Compton taunts him to "Come out!" Every night, a small legion of vampires surrounds Neville's home, ready to pounce on him the moment he opens his door. Every day, Neville braces the extremely visible isolation he faces to scrounge for food and weapons. Every day, Neville finds the courage to sneak into homes and hiding places, searching for slumbering vampires to destroy.

Neville is greeted with the conundrum of having to fight something that no one believed existed--a myth, a superstition, a legend made real. Neville employs science to determine how the vampire exists and evolves, and confirms that vampirism is a disease, a mutated bacterium, and therefore somehow can be cured. He has succeeded in taking the abstract, fictional vampire to transform it into a real, concrete enemy.

This ties in with the title of the novel and its main concept. When Neville examines his role in this new society--a society where there are only vampires, and mankind has disappeared, he sees the role reversal that has taken place. The vampires fear him, for every day Neville steals into their resting places to kill them; he is an assassin. He has become a superstition to them, the hidden killer that strikes fear in the hearts of the undead. And as the last survivor of this pestilence, he has become something that the new society can only dream of and whisper about, this legendary being known as man.

Before I touched the novel, I heard of I Am Legend when it came out as a movie in 2007, starring Will Smith. I liked the film mainly because I remember Will Smith giving a very endearing performance, and in one particular scene, when he ventures out in the empty city to make a survival expedition to the grocery store and neighboring shops.

Since Will Smith is essentially the Last Man On Earth, how long does it take for the symptoms of isolation and loneliness to sink in?

Screenshots of the mannequin scene from the 2007 film. (Source)
The film, and Smith, do an excellent job of showing this to the audience in the shop scene. The stores and neighboring area are littered with mannequins, dressed up and posed as though they are real people going about their daily business...and our lonely, desperate hero converses with them, pleading for interaction.

So this is what I had in my mind just before I opened up the pages to Matheson's novel: the emotional devastation of being truly alone. Would the image from the film, which resonated with me deeply, be eclipsed by Matheson's potent prose?

Both the film and the novel share pivotal emotional scenes that revolve around a stray dog Neville finds during the day. In the novel, Neville spends days and days trying to lure the dog to his home, leaving out trays of food, desperate for the dog's companionship. It's a slow process of waiting and watching, as Neville tries to gain the dog's trust.

Matheson really nails it with some blunt, no-nonsense description and dialogue. Here's an excerpt that I've pared down considerably, but it still packs a punch. During the dog's most recent visit, Neville sees that it is badly injured and possibly infected. He manages to capture the dog and bring it inside his house, to care for him and cure him. I found these scenes to be particularly devastating:
Die, it's going to die, he kept thinking, there's nothing in the world I can do. 
[...] He went on talking intermittently for almost an hour, his voice a low, hypnotic murmuring in the silence of the room. And slowly, hesitantly, the dog's trembling eased off. A smile faltered on Neville's lips as he went on talking, talking. 
'That's right. Take it easy, now. We'll take good care of you.' 
Soon the dog lay still beneath his strong hands, the only movement its harsh breathing. Neville began patting its head, began running his right hand over its body, stroking and soothing. 
'That's a good dog,' he said softly. 'Good dog. I'll take care of you now. Nobody will hurt you. You understand, don't you fella? Sure you do. You're my dog, aren't you?' [...] 
He sat there for hours holding the dog, patting and stroking and talking. The dog lay immobile in his lap, breathing easier. [...] 
He smiled down at the dog, his throat moving. 'You'll be all better soon," he whispered. 'Real soon.' 
The dog looked up at him with its dulled, sick eyes and then its tongue faltered out and licked roughly and moistly across the palm of Neville's hand. 
Something broke in Neville's throat. He sat there silently while tears ran slowly down his cheeks. 
In a week the dog was dead (109-110).

Powerful stuff.

I think the Robert Neville of the 2007 film had it easier than the Robert Neville of the 1954 novel, though I can't begin to imagine what it would be like to barely live in either world.

Movie Robert Neville, as a coping mechanism, reinvented his surroundings with the help of the mannequins. These are the closest representations to an uninfected human being; they are the perfect props because they are lifelike and can be manipulated. Movie Robert Neville can retreat into the comfort of his mind and imagine these "other" people are the friends and neighbors that he lost. It's not so crazy to talk to someone who is standing in front of you, because technically that person is actually, physically there.

Novel Robert Neville is not so lucky. If he wanted to carry on a conversation with another human being, how could he? He doesn't have the same type of visual and physical stimuli that can offset a coping delusion. Novel Robert Neville has nothing that can take the place of a human body. He has books and music that could help him retreat into his imagination, but he isn't able to prevent himself from reliving the past in his mind. He doesn't have the same "crutch" that movie Robert Neville has in order to deal with extreme isolation and loneliness.

This is one of many reasons why I enjoyed reading I Am Legend and preferred it to the film. The film and novel are completely different animals, but both are worthy of your time. One of the consistencies between the two works lies in the emphasis on establishing the plight of the sole survivor. Matheson's book really began this exploration in the horror genre; the film merely contributes to the tradition.

One of the most prominent and consistent fears expressed by people is the fear of being alone. I Am Legend is transcendent in its examination of this fear. I have not yet read another novel that made the sense of isolation so complete, so emotional, and so personal. I hope you are able to read this book and find it as equally troubling and enjoyable as I have.

Work Cited

Matheson, Richard. "I Am Legend." I Am Legend. Orb Trade Paperback ed. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 1995. 11-170. Print. Ser. October 2007.


  1. gee whiz, i can't tell you my greatest fear, it would gross you out. And i certainly haven't read about it in a story. (btw, i was the 2x anonymous poster in your previous entry.)

    I'd rather comment on I Am Legend: i can't believe how different the movie was compared to your description of the book! i may actually read it now...

    try to guess what my biggest fear is (HINT: all men should fear it) and why it's unlikely a novel will ever be written about it!

  2. Eric must be afraid of cleaning toilets.

  3. Good analysis. For those who have only seen the movie, you don't know what you're missing. Often referred to as the greatest vampire novel since Dracula, I Am Legend is hard core. And written in the 50's to boot. For someone in such an innocent time to come up with something so vicious is a testament to his creativity and brilliance.

  4. OK. I'm a gonna have to get this book!

  5. Anita--Hooray! That means this posting has done its job!

  6. I was in the same boat as you, I'd never read Matheson until being assigned the readings in this class. This book was fantastic, much better than that movie. Good points too.
    For your memory, the movie ended with Will Smith holding a bomb after finding a cure for the outbreak. He gives the cure to a lady and has her run away. He then blows up a bunch of vampire/zombie/cgi crap. Nothing like the ending in the book.
    I was surprised to see that it was written in the fifties and still endures.
    T. Marcus


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