Richard Matheson: I Am Legend
I grew up with an interest in vampire stories, working my through the likes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles but, despite forever hearing good things about it, I’d never got around to reading Richard Matheson’s contribution to the canon, I Am Legend (1954). However, with its third big screen adaptation currently in the cinema – and hearing word of a reworked ending – I wanted to go straight to the source before seeing the film in order that my first impressions remain faithful to the book, not to whatever liberties the film-makers have taken.
Talking of impressions, I sort of knew what to expect from the book, but only in a bare bones way: vampires, an element of science-fiction in some form or other, and character who is the last man on Earth. That the novel is held as a masterpiece of science fiction rather than horror interested me and it was to the pictured edition I turned, not wanting the film tie-in because a) these are tacky; and b) Will Smith is on it.
I Am Legend begins as just another ordinary day in the life of Robert Neville, a plant worker from California who would appear to be the sole survivor of an apocalypse seemingly caused by a bacteria that infects the hosts who then go on to show signs of vampirism: aversion to garlic, crucifixes, and daylight; death by wooden stake; a taste for blood:
…no one had believed in them, and how could they fight something they didn’t even believe in?
Neville’s days consist of foraging for food, keeping his generator running, staying sober, repairing structural damage to his home, and hunting out the vampires, who retreat to the darkness and slip into a form of coma. On a cloudy day, he stays in. But Neville’s drive to understand what has happened leads to his education in matters such as blood and microscopes:
But, of course, he knew nothing about microscopes, and he’d taken the first one he’d found. Three days later he hurled it against the wall with a strangled curse and stamped it into pieces with his heels.
Then, when he’d calmed down, he went to the library and got a book on microscopes.
At night the neighbourhood vampires gather round his house, the regular mantra of ‘Come out, Neville’, trying to entice him into their clutches, but this is nothing for Neville, who now takes it for granted:
…from a distance they’d thrown rocks until he’d been forced to cover the broken panes with plywood scraps. Finally one day he’d torn off the plywood and nailed up even rows of planks instead. It had made the house a gloomy sepulcher, but it was better than having rocks come flying into his rooms in a shower of splintered glass. And, once he had installed the three air-conditioning units, it wasn’t too bad. A man could get used to anything if he had to.
As the novel progress, his understanding of blood and bacteria grows, making him able to forms conclusions as to what has happened to the world. And if his science is sketchy – I wouldn’t know, though – then it’s only because he’s an amateur. Finally, after months of solitude, he spots a dog wandering in daylight and spends time trying to befriend it, only to discover the true nature of the bacteria, and from there events escalate to the shocking ending that, on reflection, is strangely optimistic.
Throughout I Am Legend Matheson explores the vampire myth from a scientific point of view. Neville reduces garlic, for example, to its chemical constituents to find what offends vampires so. And when tackling other conventions, of the more psychological ilk, questions are asked, such as “what would a Mohammedan vampire do if faced with a cross?” It’s to his credit that he doesn’t just accept such traits as staples of the genre and dares to question them, lifting his novel from more pulpy contemporaries.
But vampires aside, its the human angle that takes centre stage in I Am Legend, charting Neville’s passage from man to monster as he goes around by day killing the slumbering vampires. Where, in the Bible Jesus met a man possessed and, on asking his name, was told, “I am Legion, for we are many”, so Matheson inverts this notion where the many see in him a legend, a mythical beast that haunts their numbers.
The novel benefits from Matheson’s style, a straightforward, no frills prose, that is immensely readable, offering up page after page of horrific action coupled with a realistic – seriously! – study of loneliness. In the vampire canon it’s one of the better novels I’ve read, daring to be edgy by explaining a predominantly supernatural subject matter as science. Other vampire novels should be scared of this – it deserves its legend.
January 15, 2008