Thursday, January 10, 2008

I Am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson

I Am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson

'I Am Legend' is a title that is in people's collective consciousness right now thanks to the new Will Smith film, which is actually the third cinematic adaptation of Richard Matheson's seminal classic. Having just finished reading the book, I'm not surprised there have been so many attempts - the source material is quite phenomenal.

Robert Neville is the novel's protagonist, seemingly the last survivor of a plague, the last man on Earth. This plague has caused the dead to come back from the grave (this book was, unsurprisingly, hugely influential on the zombie genre) as blood sucking vampires, and those infected who haven't died yet are similarly afflicted with a taste for blood. Neville lives alone in his fortified house that is boarded up and lined with garlic and equipped with a generator and a massive freezer full of food to sustain him. And yes, these vampires exhibit all of the legendary traits of vampirism - drinking blood, inability to come out in sunlight, fear of garlic, death from stakes through the heart, and fear of the cross are all present.

The story chronicles Neville's existence as the last bastion of civilization. By day the vampires enter a comatose state leaving him free to roam the town at will, and he uses this time to get whatever supplies he needs, to carefully maintain his house's defenses, and to hunt down and kill as many of the vampires as he can before sundown, which is when they awaken. Refusing to accept a supernatural explanation, he also dedicates himself to study and research to try and determine the nature of vampirism and how it wiped out mankind, and to possibly come up with a cure for the infected still left alive.

Matheson explores the way loneliness and hopelessness tear away at Neville's psyche, with the character swinging into bouts of drunken depression on many an occasion (I lost count of how many bottles and glasses he smashes). Neville isn't exactly a superman; while he is extremely resourceful he has had his fair share of luck (being immune to the infection, for one), and the situation and his own volatile nature take their toll, causing him to have near brushes with death due to the smallest of lapses in his careful routine. The character is written as multi-dimensional and believable, and Matheson allows us into his thoughts (there is obviously not much in the way of conversation in this book), which makes his experiences all the more sympathetic and emotional. The recounting of Neville's oppressive existence is broken up by poignant flashbacks into the early days of the plague, when his wife was still alive and society was still functioning.

Apart from Neville's personal struggle and his memories, the book goes into some detail on how he manages to survive through careful routine. It also goes to great lengths (via Neville's ruminations) theorizing about the biology of vampires and about their place in history. Neville's research into the plague and what causes the symptoms of vampirism are suitably well explained and seem logical, at least at a layman's level. And while for much of the time Neville seems reasonably safe and adept at surviving, there are a few moments in the book, particularly one in which he fails to get home before sunset, that are infused with sheer terror and are incredibly exciting. The book yanks you into the tale from the opening pages and never really lets go once you enter Neville's terrifying world. Its different story threads are balanced in a manner where they all build up and coalesce to make the surprising twist of the last few chapters fully earned and completely satisfying.

'I Am Legend' is a gripping tale that is convincing in its depiction of one man's tragic struggle in a post apocalyptic world. It is a moving look into isolation and despair, while also a thought provoking commentary on history and legends, society, morality, and humanity in general, all wrapped together in a layer of science and logical thought and interspersed with helpings of excitement and terror. Matheson doesn't set a foot wrong and ends the book on a perfect note, one that explains the title of the book. I can't recommend this one enough, it's a genuine classic!


CyberKitten said...

Totally agree. I read it some years ago and its effect is just haunting. Its a shame that the movies really don't live up to the book - though I must admit I did rather enjoy the Charlton Heston version.

Antimatter said...

So you've seen the Will Smith film? I've heard it's decent enough but isn't nearly as memorable as the book and lacks the impactful ending.

CyberKitten said...

AM said: So you've seen the Will Smith film?

Unfortunately yes. I'm a big fan of Will Smith & he manages to carry his role well.... but the film is..... poor to say the least. The rather wet ending (and the religious overtone) ruined it completely for me.