Classic Horror: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Cover of I Am LegendThere are some great horror classics that I have missed over the years, and recently I picked up one such book, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. Due to my familiarity with the movie remake of the story from a few years ago, I was expecting something a little different than what I found in the book.

POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT: While I think the premise of the book is pretty well known, it is possible that my discussion may contain some details that might ruin it for those that haven’t read it yet.

The protagonist of the story, Robert Neville finds himself in the unlucky position of being the last human being left alive after a horrific virus outbreak. He has watched his child and wife succumb to the virus, as well as everyone he knows. His days are filled with survival chores, such as shoring up his home, scavenging for  provisions, and repairing his vehicle and generator. His nights are spent locked inside his home listening to the haunting taunts and cries of his former neighbors as they try to get at him.

The virus caused people to change, to crave human blood. Basically, his former neighbors are now vampires, but these vampires are a little different than ones that I have encountered before. In Matheson’s world, the infected can be either alive or dead – either way they are still mobile. Live infected retain much of their intelligence, and so Neville’s former neighbor and coworker can taunt him by name during the night and then scramble to a hiding place so safe and obscure that Neville is not able to find it no matter how hard he searches. The dead infected are more like zombies and stagger around without much thinking process going on in their minds. Often, in the mornings, Neville will have to clear these infected out of his yard and haul them to an ever burning pit on the outskirts of town.

This story takes place in the late 1970s, and there isn’t nearly the gore and horror that we are used to seeing in much of our stories today. The main concern of this story is the torture that Neville’s psyche imposes upon himself due to his predicament. He is starved for human affection and often drinks to relieve his pain and anxiety. He spends a lot of his time teaching himself enough science to begin searching for the cause of the virus, and enough information to better protect himself, or potentially provide information on a cure. He methodically tries all of the techniques used on vampires throughout history and works to determine which ones work and which are just folklore. He doesn’t have the vampire survival skills that have become common, and has to learn through trial and error that sunlight will help to kill them. Because of his precarious mental state, he sometimes makes mistakes that could be deadly, like when he forgets to wind his watch and arrives home to find his house already surrounded by the infected.

Neville is an interesting and realistic everyman character. He doesn’t have superior skills or intelligence. His existence in a changed world is fragile and tenuous. I found myself rooting for him and worrying about him. Eventually, he is confronted with the knowledge that he is not truly alone. The live infected, whom he has rooted out of their dens during the day and killed, are more alive than he bargained for. In the end, it is the legend of himself as humanity’s final hero that is his undoing.

Matheson actually wrote this book in 1954, and there have been some different takes on his story in movies over the years. More than the storyline, though, his work has created a type of hero that we see echoed in countless horror stories today. The book stands the test of time and still is a thought-provoking and enjoyable read. It’s definitely a classic!

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