I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Published by Gollancz (Orion UK); new edition December 2007; originally published 1954.
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
With the third version of the book due as a film* (starring Will Smith in December 2007), I thought it may be about time to read (or, in my case, revisit) this book.
However the film turns out, (and at the time of writing I have yet to see it)
this short book, written over 50 years ago, still has an emotional punch that not only highlights the work of an underrated writer but a book with surprising resonance, even today.
The story is pretty straightforward. Starting in (a future) 1976, the story concerns itself with Robert Neville, the last surviving human in a world of vampires. Every night his barricaded house in Los Angeles is surrounded by vampires who wish to claim him and spend their time shouting at him to come out. His days are spent repairing the damage from the previous night, collecting provisions and trying to find a cure for the mysterious vampire illness that seems to have appeared almost overnight. As the book develops, Neville realises that he must find a cure if he is to survive.
Surprisingly to me, I hadn’t realised when I first read it that this was Matheson’s first published novel. Though he went on to write Hell House and The Incredible Shrinking Man, as well as scripts for The Twilight Zone and films, for a first book this is startlingly frank - a dark and angry novel. Though not perfect, for a debut novel it is stunning. The prose is stark, simple and yet effective. It is a masterwork of the minimal, one of those books that says more by saying less, bluntly and directly.
Perhaps most surprisingly, (and more so on rereading), it is very much an adult book. If you are coming from only having seen The Omega Man, you’re in for a shock! There are topics mentioned here that in 1954 must have been very difficult to talk of in print – grief as a result of the death of loved ones, the suppression of sexual urges, repressed guilt. Dealing with such adult themes – life, death, love, survival - in an unremittingly bleak existence, the vampires of the story are at first mainly a catalyst, a means of giving the key character something to rail against. Neville has to re-evaluate his morals and his existence here, not easy in a 170-page book. Though not a particularly religious person myself, on rereading I was surprised how many Catholic themes are present, from guilt to denial to repression to redemption – something which completely passed me by first time around. Impotence – in many guises – is used as a metaphor here, as a cause for Neville’s madness and also as a response to the problems there. How would you cope without human contact, knowing that you were the only human alive?
What works here best is the horror – the nightmare of a world gone mad, turned upside down with apparently little or no hope for the future. Not only does Neville have to cope with the insanity of the present but also with reliving the horrors of the past, which at times clearly bring him to the edge of madness. Though I remembered the book as gloomy, I had forgotten how deep the bleak tone was through much of the book. And thinking further, written as this was from the beginning of the Cold War and the Atomic Age, its reflection/impact on the society of the 1950’s must have been terrifying. With vampires.
This is made more impressive by having a protagonist that is not your typical hero. Neville is a cynical, hardened and even unpleasant piece of work, (Stephen Donaldson fans take note!) but understandably so. Flashbacks to his life before the virus show him as a loving, committed, hardworking family man, very different from the character that is shown through most of the book. Indeed, determined by his environment, Neville’s survivalist way of life is most unlikable. (And that’s going to be interesting, to see how Will Smith manages that one!) He kills and fights to survive in a way that Thomas Covenant would be proud of, his actions motivated by anger, denial and frustration.
What is quite pleasing is that the book actually was one of the first to create a rationale for vampires that was not based on myth (though that obviously plays a part) but science. Here the vampire virus is scientific, brought by an unknown virus, though many of the symptoms are psychological. (This has been extrapolated by Peter Watts, more recently, amongst others.)
This can stretch things a little too far in places: not all vampire characteristics can be easily explained in a rational manner. But it is interesting and clearly paves the way for some of our recent additions to the vampire mythos. There are plot holes that, if you stop to think about them, don’t really hold up. Though understandable, it does beg the idea that if Neville needs company so badly or that there might be the chance of other survivors, why doesn’t Neville just leave to somewhere quieter and safer than downtown L.A.? The response is a rather unconvincing ‘didn’t want to’.
This is not a Neville enamoured with Vincent Price’s charm, nor is he endowed with the gung-ho’ed-ness of the Neville from Charlton Heston’s world, but nevertheless he is a character that gains our sympathy through his attempts to triumph over adversity. And that is a triumph of writing. For that reason, Richard Matheson should be better known, both in the genre and outside it.
I rather suspect, sadly, that the new film will be nothing like the book. I’m pretty sure the ending is not going to be reflected in a Hollywood blockbuster. Even so, this book is worthy of your attention, and perhaps, in these days of genetic modification and advanced nano-technology, even more so. Its influence on the genre, from Stephen King to Tanya Huff, is very clear. And for me, rereading it, more than half a century on from its original publication, its power is still shockingly undiminished.
Read it now before the film: you might be surprised.
*For the record, the two other films are The Omega Man (1971), starring Charlton Heston, and the (lesser known, but in my opinion, better) Vincent Price film, Last Man on Earth from 1964.
Mark Yon / Hobbit, November 2007
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