WEEK OF GEEK SERIES: I AM LEGEND: PART II
I Am Legend
Written by Richard Matheson
Robert Neville is the last man on Earth, but he is far from the last living being. It has been several years since an unknown plague covered the Earth and seemingly wiped out every human, save for Robert. But those humans that died did not stay dead, and have now returned to life as vampires, thirsting for human blood. For Robert’s blood. By day, Robert goes through a strict routine to fortify his home with mirrors, garlic, and nailed-up boards, and hand making the endless amount of stakes needed for his other daily routine — vampire slaying. By night, Robert sits in his home, listening to classical music and drinking himself to sleep while vampires stumble around and call for him to come out.
Fed up by not knowing what caused the plague, and still haunted by the death of his family, Robert finally decides to begin researching what may have been the origin. Though Robert is not a scientific man, he has all the time in the world to become one. He adds a trip to the library to his daily routine, where he finds books on viruses, bacteria, and basic scientific theory. Through this new process of theorizing and study, Robert finds a renewal in his life, and as he comes close to a theory that may stick under securitization, he stumbles across the biggest discovery of all — he may not be the last human alive after all!
Written by Richard Matheson in 1954, I Am Legend has become a legend of it own for the influence it has had on literature and cinema over the past fifty years. Stephen King and Brian Lumley have repeatedly sourced Matheson as inspiration. Ray Bradbury, Fangoria, and Psycho author Robert Bloch shower him with praise. Matheson’s story has been brought to the screen in 1964 as The Last Man On Earth (which in turn influenced the original Night Of The Living Dead), in 1971 as The Omega Man, and now in 2007 as I Am Legend.
Matheson’s tale is as powerful today as it was when it was first published, and as a testament to its longstanding, has aged hardly at all. The exploration of the darker sides of human emotion — loneliness and confusion especially — and the will to survive make this a timeless tale, and the fact that the story takes place long after most technology has become completely obsolete means that Neville’s journey will almost never be dated.
While this is certainly a horror novel by any means, the horror comes not from the external attacks of the vampires, but from the internal tribulations of Neville, and the nightly menaces seem trivial compared to Neville’s mental demons. Matheson takes the reader on Neville’s journey of repetition and routine to keep from going insane. Much of the story is told through Neville’s monologues to himself, as he talks his way through the day, and keeps himself in the present. Only briefly does he think back to the past, which is far too painful for him to revisit for even a fraction of a thought, and any shattered memories that Neville remembers are quickly doused with alcohol and even more detailed repetition.
What makes Neville here so fascinating is that he is just a regular man who has been thrust into an irregular situation. He is no hero, but merely a man who has tapped into mankind’s repressed survival instincts. Sometimes, he is not even a survivor, merely a teetering soul on the brink of madness who is tired of being alone, but too much of a coward to even commit suicide. In one of the saddest moments of the book, Neville discovers that there is a stray dog in his neighborhood. The dog is too scared to trust Neville, yet each day Neville attempts to feed the dog and gain its trust. He puts aside all of his other responsibilities in the hopes of finally winning over the dog, and fantasizes about the dog becoming his dog. This is a man stripped down to his frayed emotional core, and Matheson details Neville’s desperation in frightening detail.
Neville’s understanding of what has happened to the world, which in turn is the reader’s slow understanding, is part of the mesmerizing charm of Matheson’s book. Unlike any of the film incarnations of Neville, here in the original novel Neville is not a scientist and is not actively involved with the plague as it spreads out across the planet. He instead must start from scratch as he analyzes the situation and becomes a self-taught armchair researcher. As Neville becomes more aware, on a scientific level, of what has happened around him, Matheson begins to change his writing to accommodate Neville’s newfound knowledge. Matheson ever so subtly switches from chilling bump-in-the-night scares to a critical analysis of what is making those bumps. The result is an unprecedented explanation for what makes a vampire a vampire, and why the classic superstitions that have become associated with the vampire work as they do.
Matheson isn’t just content with his dissection of the vampire mythos, but also dives head first into an exploration of what legends mean and the associated perception of truth, fear, and understanding based on a majority of a population thinking a certain way. Much like zombies would be used as a tool to explore racial and social issues in the decades to come, Matheson here takes legends and transforms them into a tool to expose the irrational line of thinking of what is not understood and in a minority must be contained and destroyed. For Matheson’s part, it is a purely brilliant way to broach such critical thinking at a time when World War II was not even a decade past and segregation was an everyday fact of life in the United States.
I Am Legend is perhaps one of the greatest novels on vampirism that has been brought to the page. Perhaps only Bram Stoker’s story deserves more praise. What at first may appear to be a horror pulp story to be read under the covers then forgotten is nothing short of an astonishing analysis of not only then-current issues, but an examination that can be re-interpreted and used as a magnifying class for any political or social strife. Cinema may be able to catch a glimmer of what Matheson brought to the page, but the story just cannot be translated to another medium as it stands. I Am Legend remains a classic and essential piece of modern literature for a reason, and it is nothing short of a masterpiece.