Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND is a remarkable book. Do a straw poll of a hundred horror authors and ask them to name the single piece of fiction which most influenced them, and I’ll wager that a good number will cite I AM LEGEND. It’s not just authors – the same is probably true of film-makers too. You can’t read the book without having scenes from George Romero’s original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD play out in your head.
There’s no question, therefore, that this is an hugely influential novel, and the fact it’s been filmed on no less than three occasions is further proof of that. Interestingly, though, it’s also a remarkably slight book, coming in at less than 200 pages. So how does Matheson cram so much into so little? I decided to try and find out. There will unavoidably be spoilers ahead.
As I type I’ve literally just finished re-reading the book for the umpteenth time. I thought it would be interesting to give you my thoughts on the novel and then, over the next few weeks, to look at each of the film adaptations in turn (and if you’re not aware of the movies, they are as follows: LAST MAN ON EARTH, THE OMEGA MAN and I AM LEGEND).
I’m sure you know the basic plot by now but, just in case, here’s the back cover blurb: Robert Neville may well be the only survivor of an incurable plague that has mutated every other man, woman, and child into bloodthirsty, nocturnal creatures who are determined to destroy him.
By day, he scavenges for food and supplies, desperate to find any other survivors who might be out there. But all the while the infected lurk in the shadows, watching his every move, waiting for him to make a mistake…
I can understand why film-makers have had varying degrees of success when adapting I AM LEGEND for the screen. The vast majority of the book involves only one character, and much of the drama of the first two acts is concerned with Neville’s emotional state as he struggles to come to terms with a). being the last man alive, b). the loss of everything that ever mattered to him, and c). being under siege. The conflict is clear, but much of it occurs in Neville’s frazzled brain.
We first meet Neville several months after the outbreak of a disease which has turned almost everyone else into vampires. He’s a lone survivor on the edge; struggling to deal with the loss of his wife and child, his life has become an unforgiving daily ritual of fending off vampire attacks through the night, whilst spending the daylight hours disposing of bodies, collecting supplies and fortifying his house. For Neville, the question is no longer what do I need to do to survive?, it’s do I want to survive? He’s the last remnant of a dead world. In his words, he is legend.
A series of small victories help Neville to regain the purpose and self-worth which he’s lost. Initially listless and unfocussed, he increasingly devotes his time and energies to finding a cure for the scourge which has blighted the planet and restore some kind of new normality to his life. The appearance and eventual disappearance of a wounded dog reminds him of his loneliness and the fragility of his isolated existence. Later, an unexpected encounter with another apparently immune survivor leaves him hopelessly exposed.
Matheson tells Neville’s story with uncluttered, direct prose which is almost perfunctory at times. His abruptness adds to the emotion, perfectly reflecting Neville’s state of mind. He’s a broken man before the book begins, and it’s fascinating how, using flashbacks and other devices, Matheson weaves his backstory into the narrative. Furthermore, Neville is plagued by the reanimated corpse of a former colleague, Ben Cortman, who returns to Neville’s house night after night after night and shouts for him to come outside and show himself. This connection with the old world keeps Neville partially anchored to the past and prevents him from moving fully forward.
Those of you who’ve read my books, particularly the final AUTUMN and HATER novels, will know that I have a fascination with what I like to call the ‘post-post-apocalypse’: looking more closely at what happens after the unthinkable has happened, and how people pick themselves up (or how they don’t) and forge new lives in what’s left of the world they used to know. I AM LEGEND does that excellently. The entire novel is set post-post-apocalypse, in fact, and perfectly portrays the struggles I imagine survivors would face in such a situation. It was, I think, the first book to make me realise that much post-apocalyptic fiction and films only ever tell half the story. There’s no question that I AM LEGEND, along with DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS and THREADS, was responsible for making me think further than what happens after the bulk of the zombies have been wiped out, or once the big bad has been beaten, or the fall out levels have dropped and the nuclear winter has ended…
I don’t think I AM LEGEND is a perfect book – despite applauding its brevity earlier, I have to say that I think the final section of the book feels a little hurried and contrived, particularly Neville’s relationship with the woman survivor (which develops at a breakneck speed that’s less plausible than the vampiric disease that’s decimated the world’s population). But that aside, the novel is a landmark piece of post-apocalyptic fiction. It’s expertly told, is brutal and unforgiving when it needs to be, and has a wonderful main character in the flawed and badly damaged Robert Neville. Matheson keeps the story grounded in some kind of reality and it’s a testament to his skill that he even manages to provide plausible explanations for the most clichéd aspects of the vampire mythos (yes, I’m talking about garlic and the vampire’s fear of mirrors and crosses).
If you haven’t read I AM LEGEND, please do. And if you enjoy it and if you have time, why not check out the three film adaptations too? I’ll say nothing more for now, but please join me shortly to look at 1964’s THE LAST MAN ON EARTH starring the great Vincent Price.