“The following is a guest post by The Midnight Mystic Mage.”
“The unreal is more powerful than the real, because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it, because it’s only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. Stone crumbles, wood rots. People, well, they die. But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on.”
I Am Legend is Richard Matheson’s masterpiece which has left a large mark on modern horror. There have been three large film adaptations (to my knowledge), one of which I will be reviewing in the future. It is also thought to be an igniting force behind the zombie apocalypse genre. Of course it is not zombies, but zombie-like vampires in the story that are haunting our main character, Robert Neville. The only film adaptation I have seen so far is The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price, but I hope to watch the others when I am able.
The story follows Neville on his terrible journey through an apocalyptic wasteland. He is the only person left that he knows of, not a man, woman, or child has survived the virus that has spread. He researches this virus and finds out that it is spread in the blood, he believes that he can create a vaccine for it. Most of Neville’s days consist of gathering resources, driving stakes into the undead vampires, and hunting down his old friend and neighbor Ben Cortman. Cortman yells out his name during the night and taunts him, I found this detail strange because the vampires are so zombie like that I didn’t expect them to talk. That of course, though, is my applying today’s standards of the “zombie apocalypse” trope to the work that many say began the genre.
Neville enjoys the thrill of hunting for Cortman, it is something familiar. It is also the last piece of his old life that he can cling to, he wonders what it would be like if he were actually to finish the job and if he even really wants that to happen. Neville seems to be the only person immune to the disease which he calls Vampirus. His theory is that when he was bit by a bat in Panama, he was injected with a small amount of the virus thus building his immunity before the plague that destroyed civilization.
The story takes place in the post apocalyptic time of Neville, but flashes back to how things go that way throughout. For instance, we learn that before the plague took over Neville had a wife and a daughter. They were disastrously infected by the disease. His daughter was infected first and they had to go through the steps to keep her from turning. Then his wife. Neville could not bear to do the same to his wife, the only thing he had left. So he took her and buried her himself. This comes back to haunt him though. When she turns, he is attacked by his own wife in vampire form, having to kill her himself.
Back to present day, Neville sees what appears to be a dog that has not been infected by the virus. His reasoning behind this is that the dog is alive and roaming during the day. He calls out to the dog and scares it away the first time they see each other. After searching for another hour, Neville finally returns home sinking further into depression. This is something I haven’t mentioned yet, but one can naturally imagine that Robert is very depressed with his situation. He has succumbed to a harsh alcoholism that is fueling this depression and making his daily life even more strenuous and unbearable than it would be otherwise.
All this aside though, Neville slowly gains the trust of the dog over a period of time, leaving it food and doing his best to not scare it off. He even makes a run down to the market to get a load of the best canned dog food and dog biscuits he can find for the mutt. All of this with the dog is so exciting for him, it is the first life he has seen that is not undead in a very long time. It is a roller coaster of emotions gaining the dog’s trust. Pure frustration to utter elation watching the dog come to his food and dart away.
In the course of feeding and watching the dog, Neville one day notices a change. The animal has been attacked by the vampires. Neville assures himself that he will be able to help the dog if he can just get him inside. Finally when he lures the injured dog to his food one day he is able to pounce on him, blocking his biting attempts, and bringing him inside. This however does not last long, because this is not a happy little Disney movie, life is hard and your dogs freaking die. Regardless of Neville’s care, hospitality, & treatment, the dog dies in a week’s time. A terrible loss for our hopeless main character.
There are many discoveries that Neville is able to find in his time researching the disease and the creatures it affects. One prominent one is when he discover the cross does not have the same effect on all of the vampires. A Jewish vampire may cower from the Torah the way that a Christian vampire would cower from the cross, but it does not work the other way around. The creatures are only scared away by symbols of the faith that they practiced while still alive (I wonder what was to be said for atheist vampires?). Another of Neville’s discoveries came when he throws a vampire out into the daylight. The foul being perishes in a short amount of time and Neville realizes how thoughtless he had been to spend all of that time making so many stakes. The sunlight was a much easier method that did not use his resources. This also lead to his hunch that all the things which deterred the vampires was somehow related to the blood. That is referring to the garlic, the mirrors, the cross, sunlight, etc. I felt like this could have been elaborated on a bit more, but still made for an interesting theory.
“A woman alive. In the daylight.” This quote comes from a pivotal point in the story. Robert believes that he has gone mad at this point, that there is no way he could be seeing this properly. A struggle ensues between the two, a sort of running and wrestling match. Obvious fear is in the ladies eyes as she tries her best to get away from Robert. Finally the struggle comes to an end and Robert is able to find out her name, Ruth. They make their way back to Robert’s house and Ruth gets some much-needed rest. Robert cannot rest without finding out if she is infected though, which proves to be a valid concern. This does not unfold quite the way you might expect though. Robert convinces her to allow a sampling of her blood, after a while of getting to know each other she does in fact allow this. He promises that he will not harm her if it is found that she has the virus, that he will work with her to cure it and do his best to help save her life.
As soon as Robert goes to take a look at her blood he is met with a crack across the skull, and then another as he fades into unconsciousness. He awakes to a note explaining one of the most epic plot twists in history. You may not know of this twist if you have only seen the Will Smith movie, at least from what I hear. It is omitted for some strange reason, or replaced by a different idea. What Neville finds though, is that there is a civilization of people like Ruth. They have developed a vaccine that allows them to live and function with the disease. She was a spy sent by the new society to find out more about Neville who was an enemy of theirs. Indeed, Neville even killed Ruth’s own husband! Now you can understand where the title “I Am Legend” is derived. This man thought that he was the only civil human left among nothing but monsters, but as it turns out he was all along murdering both monsters and civil people alike. To this new society of vampire/human hybrids, Robert Neville is a legend.
Regardless of the tragedy that has befallen her because of Robert, and the haste with which she left in fear of possible repercussions, Ruth wants to try to save Robert. She understands now that he did not mean to be hurting innocent people who were living with the vaccine and virus, and that he did not even know this was possible. She would have stayed to help him flee but was too afraid of what he might do upon finding that she had the virus. She warns him in the letter that they are coming for him and soon. The attempt to persuade Robert fails though and he is captured with a fight. His fighting is regrettable because the men were instructed to capture Robert alive, it is possible that the punishment could have been less severe if he had went peacefully, and he certainly would not have been beaten so badly and left in such terrible condition. Or he could have escaped punishment completely by leaving. This is not how the story goes however.
Ruth wishes they could escape still, she tells Robert that she loves him and questions him about why he wouldn’t flee or go peacefully. They both know however that at this point it is too late to save him and what they could have had with each other. Ruth is of some notable rank in the new civilization, but even still there is nothing she can do from this point. The people want blood, it would matter little if they knew the truth that Robert was trying to do what he thought was right. They want to see the man who killed all of their loved ones put to death. Robert is at peace with all of this as he looks at the new society. To them he is a monster, he has become what he thought he was hunting by the very act of doing so. Although one could hope for a more happy and whimsical ending, I felt this was very fitting and there are many inferences that can be made from it. Not to mention it is a totally wicked twist to a great story.
Before I move on to my 8-Bit Review, I would like to talk a little bit more about the author, Richard Matheson. He is renowned for his work with this particular book, as well as Hell House which was made into the old British horror film The Legend of Hell House. I have not seen or read Hell House, but after seeing how good this book is I really must when I get the chance. He is also known for his novel The Shrinking Man, which has been adapted to film twice as The Shrinking Man (1957) and The Shrinking Woman (1981). Bid Time Return was another novel by him that was made into a film considered to be a cult classic titled Somewhere in Time.
Matheson made many notable contributions to both the horror and the sci-fi genres. I personally feel I Am Legend left the greatest mark of any of his work, but he also had many other critically acclaimed novels and wrote for shows such as The Twilight Zone. His first story to be published was a short story, titled Born of Man and Woman. It sounds like a very dark and depressing tale of a child that is kept in the basement and chained there, being beaten and having to watch his sister have a normal life with friends outside the window. It was selected as one of the best science fiction short stories published before the creation of the Nebula Awards. So he was obviously very talented right from the beginning of his career, I look forward to reading more from him and seeing more adaptations of his work in the future.
The 8-Bit Review
Much of the setting is very bleak and scary, imagine believing yourself to be the last human being in existence with nothing but evil creatures that want to brutally murder you left. That’s pretty dang scary if you can put yourself in that situation. There are some parts that detract from the creepy tone of the book, at least for me personally. I found it a bit humorous that the living dead, zombie-like, vampires were calling out things in perfectly normal speech. Of course like I said earlier, it may be the way that I am conditioned to view those creatures because of modern media, but the thought of it is still pretty funny.
I felt that Matheson expressed the scenario brilliantly. It is a fairly short story, but it has left a lasting impression. The feeling of hopelessness and despair is in full display and he does a great job of connecting you with the character and the feelings that he is experiencing. With the morose depression and chronic alcoholism experienced by Neville, the joy and return to despair with the dog, and the broken trust mixed with confused feelings of love and regret with Ruth, he conveys every emotion beautifully and does a wonderful job creating the post apocalyptic setting.
After being berated with post-apocalyptic zombie movies and shows, it is a breath of fresh air to read one that utilizes vampires in the same setting. This is ironic of course, because the story by Matheson is the originator of the genre. It is a new story to me though and so it remains true all the same. I loved how he put different twists on the vampire cliché by introducing (to my knowledge) the concept of it being passed through a virus in the blood stream that can be helped with the aid of a vaccine. It is stupidly influential to today’s culture where you cannot throw a rock without hitting a new zombie movie or TV show, and I think a large debt is owed to this story for shaping today’s entertainment.
The hunter becomes he very thing that he has hunted all along. This can be applied to witch hunters of antiquity, Inquisitions and Crusades of holy war meant to rid the world of the unrighteous, or even one cannot deny the Muslim terrorism of today. These people wish to rid the world of this evil presence, so they fight their entire lives only to become that which they have despised in the beginning. They become murderers and monsters. It is very relatable in a context of today, and I fear that it always will be in some form.
I’ll be honest, I heard about the twist before going back to read the novel. So it did not come as a shock to me, but it is still a flooring turn for the novel to take. The guy that you follow so closely that becomes so dear to you through his trials and tribulations, becomes himself the evil monster lurking on the fringe of society. This is a shocking concept, and in truth when you look more closely you can not deny that he is as evil to them as the vampires themselves were to Neville and his family.
Page Turner: 8/10
It was a gripping tale. No wasted space in the 150 or so pages of the novel. Each scene of present day and flashback alike keeps your attention. Neville’s family history, the dog, the woman, the new society. Each detail carries you along as you follow the journey of the last normal man on earth, at least to the knowledge of the reader. There are many unexpected turns and interesting concepts, which aided the ability of the story to keep your attention.
He takes existing concepts and makes them completely his own. The extremely influential take on vampirism is some of the old and some of the new. His reliance on tropes through some parts of the book are what had me bring the uniqueness score down a peg. He does use all new takes on the old tropes so one could argue that in itself makes them unique, but I stand firmly behind my view that it makes the story by nature partially derivative.
My Personal Score: 8/10
I regard it as a classic and an incredible achievement of writing. It has withstood the test of time better than many stories ever will and has changed the face of entertainment in a way many stories will never be able to. You could say that Matheson struck gold with his concept of the apocalypse, and changed the world around him while doing so. I highly recommend it for fans of the zombie apocalypse genre, vampire fans, and any horror fans in general. It is very interesting to see the way one story and one author can do so much to change the world, even after his lifetime.
Aggregated Score: 8.3