Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) A terrible plague decimates the world, and those unfortunate enough to survive are transformed into bloodthirsty creatures of the night. Robert Neville is somehow the last living man on Earth.
Thoughts: I’m not sure how many times this book has been turned into a movie, but it was after seeing its most recent incarnation that I made the decision to sit down and read the source material. I Am Legend is a short read, quick and tense with sporadic bursts of action, and has been named an SF Masterwork, with good reason.
Matheson gives us an interesting concept to read about. Most people are dead, killed by a vampire virus that covered the world as spores travelling on high winds after the climate changed in many of the same ways that scientists suspect. The virus kills most, and turns the others into manic bloodthirsty monsters, who seem to have little better to do with their time than to harass Robert Neville, the last remaining human. Neville spends his time barricaded in his house, experimenting with ways to kill the vampires by day, trying to ignore them and drink himself senseless by night. Until he spies another living human being during the day…
In spite of the somewhat embarrassingly dated language in places, I Am Legend is still something of a timeless tale of isolation and discovery. You can really feel Neville’s loneliness and desperation, and his disappointment every time he thinks he has a breakthrough that ultimately fails. You feel his anger as he lashes out at the hordes or vampires that chase after him. Matheson seems adept at cramming a great deal into a few words, the whole story refined and condensed and without any of the frills and fillers you find in longer novels.
The twist ending is one that has been discussed time and again, and is one that the movies supposedly never do well (again, I’ve only watched the most recent movie and can’t speak to any of the others). Neville may be the last human alive, but he is not the last sentient being, as some of the vampires overcame their animalistic drives post-transformation and began to organize a civilized society in which to live. Neville’s fear and hatred of vampires kept him killing them long after they made this change, and so he has become to them the very think that they used to be to him: a boogeyman in the dark, a killer for no understandable reason. It was an interesting twist on the old “us versus them” dynamic; not a mere meeting of minds and discovery that we’re all alike at the core, but each being the other’s monster, and each being more than the other understands. The monsters, in the end, become more civilized than the human who once prided himself on his civilization.
It’s an inversion and a cycle. Human society crumbles, monsters are born, man hunts monsters, monsters have social revolution, monsters-turned-men defend themselves against a man-turned-monster. It’s the kind of idea that, if a person is really thinking about what they’re reading, can really give them pause and force them to re-examine the dynamic by which they function in their own society and how they compare it to that of others. In one man’s story, we can see our own, and that’s why I Am Legend cuts right to the bone with its brutal sympathetic commentary.
It’s easy to see why this became a masterwork, a classic of sci-fi and horror fiction. It’s something that modern readers can relate to and find meaning in, and will undoubtedly stand up to further decades of scrutiny and come out kicking. If it has any flaw, I would have to say that flaw is in the book’s length. While the imagery is clear and the dialogue believable, it does lack much of the detail that modern readers have become accustomed to, and I suspect that might turn many people away. It may lack filler, but it also doesn’t have much flesh.
Still, it was worth reading, for both the story itself and for the look into the genre fiction of the past. Recommended for hardcore fans, and for those looking to get some greater insight into the movie concept that will never die.