You have probably seen the modern film, I am Legend, starring Will Smith. You may have even liked it but there is a strong chance you didn’t. Well this is the book that inspired it. Written in 1954, its influence has lasted over half a century so far with that modern retelling but whatever your feelings on the movie, read this book. It stands head and shoulders above any of its retellings and if I had read I Am Legend before watching the film, I would have said that the film to this book is like Brad Pitt’s World War Z to Max Brooks’. Poor recreations of fantastic literary fiction.
Like I said, I Am Legend was written in 1954. It was written by renowned author of horror and science fiction Richard Matheson. The American writer’s works are widely regarded as some of the most of important at that time. With horror and science fiction in a bit of a lull and with the horror writers of the past being left in the past as the reading public moved towards thrillers and mysteries, Richard Matheson not only reinvigorated a then stagnant genre but also provided a platform for many new generations of writers for years to come including the likes of Clive Barker and Stephen King who both speak regularly on the importance of this man’s works to their writings and aspirations.
Amazingly I Am Legend has been made into a film four times under different names including The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man and was listed as the inspiration for a film that is extremely respected and loved by GBHBL – Night of the Living Dead.
I Am Legend is kind of a post-apocalyptic horror which tells the story of Robert Neville who has and is surviving an outbreak which is believed to be causing vampirism. It is strongly suggested throughout that he could well be the only survivor though as the story is told almost in a diary format and purely from Robert’s perspective, we will never know for sure.
Set in the future from Richard Matheson’s perspective – in the 70’s to be specific, Robert has been surviving alone for a long time. He has made his home safe and has become a creature of pure habit who sits, drinks and waits through the night and then repairs his defences, gathers supplies and kills a few vampires in his homes vicinity during the day. While he may be surviving, he is not doing well. He has all the basics to get buy – power, supplies and defences – but the lack of human interaction and the loss of so many loved ones is clearly affecting his mental state.
On top of that, every night he is tortured by a group of vampires/infected who come to try and tempt him out of his solidly defended house. Some strangers and some he knew from better days. They call to him and try to tempt him out with seduction and threats and the affect all this has on Robert is very descriptive and terrifying.
This constant loop of his life drives him further and further into almost a non-humanlike existence anyway which is strange as he is probably the last human alive.
He contemplates ending it in his many dark times and often turns to drink to drown out the cries of those who so strongly desire to slaughter him but usually that just makes his mental state more fragile and his situation seem even more hopeless.
His drinking is a major part of the story and puts him at risk constantly – none more so then when he forgets to wind his watch one night and while out scavenging the next day, realises it is getting dark while he is far from home. He barely survives the contact with the enemy that lateness brought about.
In moments of clarity though Robert does try to better his situation. He studies history, legend, lore and science regarding the vampires/dead/undead to better his defences and, who knows, maybe even stumble upon a cure though he doubts that massively.
Over time he manages to learn a lot about them and realises that lore was nonsense and this vampirism is caused by a mutating germ. He also realises that there are more than one type of infected. The original type who caused the infection and the dead that have come back to life but there are also others who are affected and in an undead sort of state where they are not quite vampires but are infected and will turn at some point.
There are some hugely interesting ideas put forward around the mythology like crucifixes and it great to see, in his clear days, Robert captures some by day to experiment and finds that crucifixes do work but only due to psychology. He shows a crucifix to one of his infected ex friends and it does nothing. Why? Because he was Jewish. Instead he shows some ancient Jewish symbols to it and it recoils in horror.
As a story, these moments are both insightful and fresh – new ideas on a genre and on a monster that helps me see why this story inspired so many and for so long.
Robert’s trials and tribulations never stop – from moments of hope like when he finds and eventually forms a strained friendship with a wounded dog to the loss of that companion quickly afterwards.
The loop of Robert’s terrible existence is the story though and it is told beautifully through to its bitter end. His loss and pain and never ending torment every night quickly followed by his monotonous and desperate routine during the day.
As time passes, things do change with one strain of the vampires though – the zombie like ones learn to prevent themselves turning and start to plan their own brutal society and to do that, the last of the old world need removing leading to the final loss and final beautiful betrayal and the ending of this sombre story. It ends in the only way it could, with loss, fear and despair and the realisation to Robert that he was the last, the feared and the hopeless and to the vampires he was a terrifying demon sent to destroy them. He was Legend!
What a story. The writing, as writing from the past often is, is beautifully descriptive and sucks the reader in so that you feel every ounce of pain and grief and loss. I Am Legend is a story of hopelessness, not hope and Robert’s psychological struggles are all too real and understandable. As a reader I found myself lost completely in his world imagining every nook and cranny and feeling terrible remorse and if a book can do that to you, it is worthy of note.
An absolute classic!
I Am Legend (Richard Matheson)