Before vampires were brooding, sparkly and sexy, Bram Stoker and Richard Matheson made them scary. They were creatures of the night, meant to be feared and avoided at all costs.
If it was Stoker that introduced us to the world of the undead blood suckers, it was Matheson who took the genre the next step forward, exploring how the tropes of vampire mythology could be true based on scientific principles of the time.
But to categorize “I Am Legend” as just as vampire story is a huge mistake. As with all of the best Matheson stories, the supernatural element is the gateway to exploring something deeper about human beings. In this case, it’s an exploration of loneliness and the depths it can drive a person to.
Robert Neville is the last survivor of the vampire apocalypse, started when China and Russia unleashed germ warfare as part of a border war. The germ proved too effective, quickly spreading across the globe and wiping out large chunks of humanity. Neville is immune to the disease thanks to a vampire bat bite he got while serving in Central America years before. Neville faces not only the horror of being tormented each night by a hoard of vampires led by his old friend, Ben Cortman, but he also has to live with the guilt that he had to kill his wife and daughter when they were resurrected as vampires by the virus.
As the story begins, Neville is eking out a day to day existence in which his only concerns are ensuring his house is safe from the vampire hoards each night and trying to deal with the oppressive loneliness he feels every waking minute of the day. It’s been a long time since Neville had any company of any kind and the hope of female companionship is just one of the lures the vampires try to use each evening to draw Neville out in a moment of weakness.
Neville’s essential isolation is underlined by his attempts to connect to anything that could possibly be a link to a normal life. Neville feels hopes when he sees an uninfected dog roaming the neighborhood and spends weeks trying to get the animal to trust him. Later he sees what appears to be an unaffected woman and he chases her down like a madman, trying to keep her from fleeing. Of course, what Neville doesn’t realize is that the vampires are evolving and creating their own society. And that to them, he’s become the monster and stuff of nightmares–an unchanged human with no regard to the fact that there are two different types of vampires now–some who are mindless killing machines and others who are evolving into something more.
Neville is typical Matheson hero–the everyman facing extraordinary circumstances and trying not only to come to grips with them but to survive. Unlike many of the movie adaptations (when will Hollywood get this story right?!?), Neville doesn’t start out as scientist but becomes one over the course of the story. Circumstances force him to begin a process of learning and studying to see if a cure is possible and why certain elements of the vampire lore might be true. Matheson’s idea may or may not be scientifically credible in the real world, but they work within the confines of the story and make the entire novella that much richer for it.
One of the good things about “I Am Legend” is that the vampires in it are scary monsters, something to be feared and protected against. But Matheson also shows not only the evolution of Neville, but the evolution of the vampires as well. Early on, the vampires try to tempt Neville with the women pulling up their dresses and Cortland telling him to surrender and leave his safehouse. But as the novel goes along, the vampires become less aggressive in their attack, setting up a devious trap that eventually leads to Neville’s downfall. It’s a fascinating arc to consider and one has to wonder what the vampire society being created might be like once the final page of the story is turned.
“I Am Legend” is a great portal to exploring the literary world of Mattheson. Most editions of “Legend” will include a few short stories to give you a bit more of a taste of how good Matheson can be. In many ways, he’s one of the most prolific and influential writers that most people haven’t heard of. Stephen King often cites him as one of his biggest influences and the more you read of both, the more you’ll see the connection.
“I Am Legend” is a classic of multiple genres and worthy of a read or even a re-read. I’ve read it several times now and enjoyed it each time. If you’ve not read it, put it on the to be read list. If you have read it, maybe it’s time to visit it again and sit back in wonder of how good Matheson can be.
And Hollywood–it’s about damn time you got the movie version of this book right.