Fiction Review: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Poor Richard Matheson didn't make the cut for the inspirational reading section of AD&D 1st edition. That said, his short novel I Am Legend casts a wide shadow, creating the zombie apocalypse genre in a novel with nary a zombie in sight. George Romero of zombie fame and Stephen King have both acknowledged his influence.

I Am Legend has produced three film adaptations. The first adaptation was 1964's The Last Man On Earth, starring Vincent Price, a film I've not seen. Reading its wikipedia entry it seems they stayed pretty close to the plotline of the novel. The second was the classic 1970s Charlton Heston film, The Omega Man. Finally there was the more recent I Am Legend starring Will Smith. Both The Omega Man and I Am Legend have their virtues but I don't think either of them really "got" the novel.

With that preliminary out of the way, let's talk about the novel itself. It takes place some twenty years in "the future", though it being a 1954 novel that puts it in the mid-1970s. It follows Roger Neville, a man who just might be the last survivor of a pandemic which seems to have wiped out humanity and replaced them with vampires. Neville has turned his house into a fortress, having barricaded the windows and doors, powered it with a generator, protected it with floodlights, mirrors, and garlic. Every night a mob of vampires tries to get into his house or get him out. They seem to possess only a rudimentary intelligence aside from their leader who used to be his next door neighbor.

The novel takes us both forward and backward in time. It gives us the background of the world and what happened to it. It suggests, as I seem to recall a lot of novels once did, that there had been a limited nuclear exchange and talks how Neville had served in the military. It shows us the dust storms and plagues of mosquitos that stuck his native Los Angeles (and, it is suggested, the rest of the world). We see the pandemic that slew his family and the rest of civilization, turning many into vampires. Only Neville seems to be immune.

Moving forward in time we follow Neville in his effort to find purpose in his life. He has a list of things he keeps meaning to do but rarely gets beyond maintaining his stronghold of a home. He finds solace in alcohol and is often tempted to go out at night and let the vampires have him. Slowly he pulls out of his downward spiral into self-destruction and dedicates himself to understanding the vampires. Unlike the film adaptations, while a reasonably bright guy he is no scientist. However he has time on his hands and uses it to understand vampirism and finds scientific reasons for their aversion to sunlight, garlic, mirrors, religious symbols, etc.

Even though he pulls out of his self-destructive behavior, he is desperate for companionship. He dedicates a considerable amount of time to win the friendship of an uninfected dog. The book reaches it climax when he meets another survivor and comes to realize he is not alone after all - though that might not be the best thing for him

I mentioned how despite featuring vampires, I Am Legend inspired the zombie apocalypse genre. Matheson's vampires are, with few exceptions, barely intelligent. They're a bit better than your typical zombie and a lot more mobile but they don't sparkle, they don't have angst, and they don't hunger for the love of a mortal woman. However, despite being like a zombie apocalypse, the daytime is safe from them. It is only at night when they come out. This means survivors like Neville are able to function during the day, a technique which was also used in Justin Cronin's The Passage, which also featured a "vampire apocalypse" which resembled your more traditional zombie apocalypse. (Hmm, I just wrote the phrase "traditional zombie apocalypse". Interesting....)

A subset of gamers is all about explanations. Some gamers are perfectly happy with the gargantuan dragon dwelling at the end of a dungeon of ten-foot corridors. Others go bonkers and must have or craft an explanation for how the dragon got there and functions. I'm definitely of the latter type which is probably one of the reasons why this book appeals to me.

Matheson has been a prolific writer. He wrote the story which was adapted into the 1970s movie Duel about the unseen trucker pursuing a mild-mannered salesman throughout desert highways. He wrote a number of Twilight Zone episodes including the classic "Nightmare At 20,000 Feet". He's an author who I feel is well worth your time.

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