The year of 1818 was stamped by Mary Shelley. 1897 was marked by
Bram Stoker… and then 1954 rolled around, in which Richard Matheson published the fictional life of the sole survivor of an apocalypse. Matheson’s story frightened people; until then, the story of the vampire had been somewhat limited to Stoker’s vision. I Am Legend showed a new side to the story, proposing that vamprism could occur from disease. This tale began a long stream of film: inspiring 1968‘s film Night of the Living Dead. The Last Man on Earth in 1964, and The Omega Man in 1971, and I Am Legend in 2007, along with the little known I Am Omega. Although it was ill-received by some, Matheson’s novel helped to propel the horror genre of today.
The protagonist is Robert Neville; a brooding, haunted shut-in, on the brink of sanity. By day he stalks about his home, worrying about how long the food stores will hold out, and repairing the damages done by malignant foes with an increasingly sour attitude. Then the sun sets. He dreads the night, for it is only by night that the creatures come. He can hear them throughout the late hours, those who were once neighbors or friends, jeering at him through the boards on the windows, screaming his name, challenging him to come out, come out. The sunny Los Angeles days are repetitive and long, and the nights drive him mad. Life itself seems a plague, broken only by his attempts to cure the disease.
Perhaps the worst of things for Neville is the memories. Throughout inter-spaced chapters, we are transported to days when his wife lived, and then we are thrown forward into days when she did not. This style of plot breaks up the monotony of Matheson’s somewhat lengthy scientific ramblings, and seeing Neville’s comforting side gives him some humanity. Otherwise, one could easily say that the characters are portrayed somewhat shallowly.
This fault was healed in my mind by the suspense generated by several key events. The appearance of the dog was one of such events. Neville’s bitter heart is lifted when he spots a half-starved canine on his lawn. He leaves hamburger out frequently during the day, and awaits gazing out the mail-slot of his door for it’s coming. But when the dog comes for it’s meal late one evening, things take a drastic turn. Neville soon returns to his state of depression. Other moments are perhaps more predictable, but they create the most excitement, such as the time when Neville is forced to return to his home long past sunset, only to find the garage door open and the creatures inside. In a desperate fight, Neville’s end is nearly decided.
By the end of the tale, Robert Neville chooses his end. He soon realizes that society has shifted, that now he is the monster, and it is too late. The character then speaks the iconic line, “I am a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend”.
It is a fantastic story. However, the language that Neville uses mars it’s horrific beauty. Matheson’s story has a nearly distracting amount of language, mostly limited to the synonym for condemnation. This led me to skipping pages, and frustrated me immensely. However, near the end of the book the language nearly vanishes, leaving me able to read in peace of mind. Subject matter includes alcoholism and violence, including some drunken bouts of rage and some Vampire slaying (a natural thing in a vampire novel). The discerning reader can take a peek into the pages and decide whether it is worth perusing, and can find the spirit of the story in the many films inspired by it.