Horror Review: I Am Legend (by Richard Matheson)


“[I am] a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend.”Robert Neville

In 1954, Richard Matheson published a novel that would influence so many future generations of science-fiction and horror writers and film directors. Matheson’s body of work prior to 1954 could be summed up as good but nothing too exciting. His work thus far overlapped such pulp genres as horror, science-fiction and fantasy. This style would be the hallmark of his brand of story-telling. It would be in his novel I Am Legend that his unique style of combining different genres that Matheson would have his greatest and most epic work to date.

I Am Legend takes the vampire tale and brings it out of the shadows and darkness, so to speak. Set in the late 1970’s, I Am Legend begins its tale with humanity pretty much on the quick path to extinction due to a pandemic where the bacterium or virus involved caused symptoms very similar to what folklore had called vampirism. The protagonist of this tale was one Robert Neville. An unassuming man living in a Los Angeles suburban neighborhood who might just be the only living human being, or at least the only un-infected one, on the face of the planet. Neville’s been reduced to a day-to-day routine of defending his fortified home from the vampire-like infected humans who’ve tried attacking him and his home once night falls. This routine has become so ingrained in Neville that it starts him on a downward spiral to utter despair. He knows that he might just be the only human left and the prospect of such an idea almost becomes too much for his psyche. It’s this growing despair which gradually causes Neville to make little mistakes in his routine that puts him in greater levels of danger from those turned who see him as nothing but cattle.

His attempts to solve the mystery of why he’s the only one not affected by the disease becomes his way of keeping himself sane. Neville’s work in trying to find the answer leads him to take chances in keeping a vampire survivor alive and bound instead of just killing it outright. His experiments ranges from disproving the myths surrounding the vampire creature and acknowledging the scientific and/or psychological explanations to certain behavioral traits of these nocturnal creatures.

Neville’s studies on captured vampires tell him why certain things like garlic and sunlight causes such an extreme reaction on these creatures. Why do they have a certain invulnerability towards bullets but not a stake through the heart is one question he tries to answer through his research. He even surmises that the vampires aversion to crucifix was more psychological than anything supernatural. Neville arrives at this after observing a vampire’s reaction to a Star of David was similar to the reaction of another one towards the crucifix.

It’s events such as these which puts I Am Legend in a category all by itself. It still uses themes of horror which the vampires fulfill to great effect, but it also does a great job of taking the vampire tale out of the supernatural realm and into the scientific and logical. Neville’s attempts to keep himself sane, as his loneliness begin to weigh on his psyche and health, through these studies and experiments adds a level of the science-fiction to this tale. It’s the combination of these two genres which makes I Am Legend such an epic tale in scope yet it’s not that which gives the tale its heaviest impact. It’s Neville himself, more to the point, his desperate situation of being the last man on earth weighing on his mind. This tone gives this apocalyptic vampire tale such an intimate feel that the reader hopes and wishes for some sort of peaceful end to Neville; better yet, some hope that he might find clues that he might not be the last.

As the story moves forward, the line between who is human, who is monster and who is the true survivor become blurred as Neville’s forays into the city for supplies lead him to a community of others who have not succumbed to the monstrous effect of the pandemic. It’s this discovery that gives Neville a semblance of hope which momentarily lifts the heavy weight of inevitability from his mind. But not everything is at it seems at first glance. Neville finds this out as his encounters with this thriving community continue to give him more and more insight as to how they’ve survived. The climactic end to this tale has become such a classic ending that any other resolution wouldn’t have worked. The end worked as the best possible ending to Matheson’s tale. It also gives the books title a deeper and more profound meaning to it.

I Am Legend will continue to go down in literary history as one of the best examples of fantastic literature. It’s seemless blending of horror, science-fiction and the apocalyptic gives the tale both an epic and intimate feel and tone. It’s not wonder the very themes and premise of this story has influenced such horror writers and filmmakers as Stephen King (The Stand, Salem’s Lot) and George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead). I Am Legend takes the vampire tale out of the shadows and darkness it usually in habits and brings it out to the light of science and logic with surprising results. A true classic piece of writing from Richard Matheson and one that still stands as the benchmark for apocalyptic tales.

2 responses to “Horror Review: I Am Legend (by Richard Matheson)

  1. An excellent analysis of this seminal novel, and very timely with REAL STEEL (based on Matheson’s “Steel”) now on cinema screens. As you noted, I AM LEGEND was a major influence on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but sadly each of its three official adaptations has left something to be desired: THE LAST MAN ON EARTH with Vincent Price, THE OMEGA MAN with Charlton Heston, and the 2007 version with Will Smith. For more on all three films, plus his original TWILIGHT ZONE adaptation of “Steel” with Lee Marvin, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4216-4).

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  2. Pingback: Horror Scenes That I Love: Vincent Price Watches Home Movies in The Last Man On Earth | Through the Shattered Lens

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