I was a little skeptical about Richard Matheson’s 1954 I Am Legend. I’ve recently become tired of apocalypse narratives largely because of the over-saturation of the cultural market with them. I was also a little wary of vampire stories (of course, this novel predates the Twilight craze by a solid half-century). However, Matheson’s novella is a fun and interesting read. He does good work exploring the psychological tensions of Robert Neville, possibly the last man on Earth (or at least in his city) in the wake of a cataclysmic disease that transforms most of the population into blood-thirsty vampires. But I think the real strength of the book lies in the ending which puts forward a number of interesting questions and really throws the narrative in a totally unexpected direction.
The plot is as follows: Neville survives in a fortified house, operating in the day when the vampires are in some kind of coma, scrounging supplies and trying to figure out what caused the epidemic and whether there might be a cure for it. When night descends, Neville locks himself in and drinks himself to sleep most nights to stop the incessant yelling and taunting from his former neighbours. So far this is standard fare and some of Neville`s gripes about living feel a little worn. The narrative gets interesting when he first discovers a dog (a central character in the most recent film adaptation of the movie starring Will Smith) and then a woman. These beings awaken an intense desire to live and be with other beings, but given his circumstances this proves unobtainable.
I Am Legend`s ending is somewhat predictable given that most of the novel sets up how pointless Neville’s quest to survive is. At one point, he even thinks of himself as a vegetable, living out a pre-programmed life without desire or emotion. However, the final scene is incredible given how it shifts what has come before. *Spoiler* Neville looks out from his cell after having been captured by the vampires, who have been terrified of him because of his killing of them, and realizes that he himself has now become a monster to Earth`s new inhabitants. The book ends with the great line “I am legend,” capping Neville’s attempts to dispel the myths surrounding vampires to get at the truth of their existence. In this move, Matheson moves right back to the world of myth and legend but with humans as the core. I loved this twist. It gives Matheson’s narrative philosophical depth and unsettles conceptions of humanity in interesting ways. I think I Am Legend is required reading for any fan of post-apocalyptic narratives, partly because it does it so well but more importantly because it does it intelligently.
I highly recommend I Am Legend to any fan of zombie/vampire/post-apocalyptic narratives.
Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. 1954. Montreal: Bantam Books, 1964. Print.