So I recently read this book over the course of an afternoon, which is no mean feat for me, but I also feel that accomplishment is a testament to the work and I only have one regret: why did I leave this book on my shelf so long?
The setting of I Am Legend is one of a futuristic 1970s Los Angeles where the protagonist, Robert Neville, is the only survivor of a pandemic which has turned the rest of the population into vampiric zombies. Now, I’m not usually drawn to zombie fiction – especially later work as I feel the genre is saturated with trite tropes but I was intrigued to see how, in 1954 (when I Am Legend was published) this then-nascent genre developed. The setting was admirably achieved – Neville seemingly fortified in his house against the vampire horde that congregates outside at nightfall.
There’s a distinct sense of atmosphere with this book and it builds a picture of the loneliness and despair Neville faces as the only uninfected man alive. His days are spent foraging for supplies, and his evenings fending off the vampires. The horde feels anonymous but it is the presence of the vampiric cadaver of Neville’s neighbour, Ben Cortman, whose constant goading for Neville to “come out” stands out. It adds to the sense of horror and loneliness, that the only person that communicates with Neville is his de facto worst enemy who wants him dead; the irony being that Cortman was Neville’s neighbour, and the closeness that relationship, pre-pandemic, infers.
Neville is presented as a resourceful man who has to make the best of the situation he finds himself in – and throughout the course of the book there is a sense of learning about the situation and adapting accordingly. In the beginning, Neville fashions stakes from dowels to kill off the nocturnal vampires in their sleep during the day, but as time progresses he devises a more efficient way of dispatching his foes which does have a material impact. But there is also the sense that Neville has adopted a “bunker mentality” with his home which is seeks to protect at all costs; his home being his sanctuary from the hell outside.
Loneliness and depression are dealt with, as Neville slowly realises the gravity of his situation. He no longer cares for getting drunk or even lusting over women – realising that such things are meaningless as the last person alive. The story moves briskly as Neville finds reason to live again and try to examine the cause of the vampiric pandemic but the story has a brutal and bittersweet ending.
The writing in I Am Legend was refreshing considering the book’s age – it felt a considerably younger text than it is. I’d attribute a portion of this to the attention to detail given toward the plague and its effects – the author, Richard Matheson, clearly researched this to a great degree which grounds the vampiric nature of the pestilence as less superstition – though the importance legend is alluded to a lot in the narrative – but more as a result of more advanced scientific advances. I much prefer this scientific take on vampirism than reliance on oogie-boogie mythology as I find it more narratively satisfying, and I Am Legend accomplishes this.
Arguably this is the first post-apocalyptic and truly modern zombie novel and, while reading it in 2016, it still felt modern, despite the retro-futurism of an apocalyptic vision of the 1970s. I can appreciate that, at the time of publication, this didn’t seem too far away to be outlandish; rather, a mere 20 years ahead for contemporary readers. The simple tone taken also keys in well to the sense of loneliness that pervades Robert Neville’s solitary life – a man who has no real need for pretention. It also made it an easy and quite digestible read, as focusing solely on Neville admittedly makes the story brief but intensely focused.
On the basis of I Am Legend’s quality I am looking forward to making up the deficit with Richard Matheson’s other work in the near future! And, more generally, I feel considerably less inhospitable to reading other, more contemporary post-apoc/zombie fiction!
Buy I Am Legend on Amazon UK