It is a bit surprising that it took me so long to get around to reading Richard Matheson’s 1954 horror classic I Am Legend despite spending years of my adolescence reading nothing but. I even owned the first two volumes of the four volume comic book version by Steve Niles and Elman Brown published in the 90s. (What struck me while reading the novel shortly after re-reading the graphic adaptation was how much of the original material literally is in the comic.)
The set up is simplicity itself: vampires as a reality taken to a logical conclusion. Eventually, as with other forms of reproduction and with a far shorter gestation period than most births, vampires will exponentially increase in numbers and shortly outnumber humans. Gone to its culminating point, one solitary human remains holed up in his reinforced home, emerging only in the daytime to hunt down the vampires near his residence and to replenish his stock of canned goods, bottled water, and fuel for his generator.
We meet our hero Robert Neville after he has been at this routine for some time in the year 1976. Matheson slowly unfolds both his very recent past, the tasks he sets himself to keep his home safe and to try and fight the vampires, as well as what developments lead up to the pandemic in the weeks surrounding the death of his wife and daughter. Matheson doles out the information in tidbits, breaking things up with scenes of Neville as he is slowly driven mad by his isolation and by the constant onslaught of the vampires.
Despite what must be a life of long stretches of solitary tedium, Matheson never lets Neville’s life become dull to us. Moments as when Neville is far from home and realizes that he neglected to wind his watch the night before are wonderful at evoking a sick dread in the reader’s stomach. The temptations of the flesh the vampire women use to lure Neville out at night are craftily conceived even for the more repressive time when the book was published.
The mark of the fifties is all over the novel, though it is especially wonderful that were you to read it and guess it was written contemporaneously with its time setting nothing in the book would dissuade you. Granted, a world-wide breakdown of this magnitude, whether in the fifties, seventies, or aughts, would leave you fighting the same basic issues. Gas for a generator, food, water, safety. That the plague of vampirism, as it turns out a bacterial infection borne on the winds, is spread in the aftermath of non-specific nuclear wars, seems part and parcel of the hotter eras of the Cold War.
I kept wondering, however, why the vampires weren’t more proactive at smashing down the door and barreling into Neville’s home. While he fortified it as best he could, it never seemed more than mere boards and even as dumb as they are sometimes made out to be, the vampires elsewhere display enough craftiness to have concocted this plan on their own. With the exception of that small detail, Matheson’s novel is a compulsive read partly because we sympathize with the hero’s plight (who among us hasn’t considered a “I am the last person alive on earth” scenario?) and because Matheson knows one of the best secrets of good dramatic writing: make your characters suffer. Be pitiless.
[SPOILER SECTION, skip ahead if you like.:]
A good example comes with Neville catching sight of a dog, a lone survivor like him, a companion who has also managed to escape the vampires for months. Extremely reluctant to engage with any people, the dog runs when he hears Neville’s voice for the first time and every time after that. Neville begins the very, very slow process of approaching the dog, putting out food and water, restraining himself from letting the dog see him for a while. The intimacy draws the two closer and closer until Neville manages to actually pet the dog. After that, the dog disappears for a couple days. When Neville next spots the dog, it has been wounded by one of the vampires. In an attempt to heal it, Neville manages to coax the dog up to the porch of his house for food again, then quickly grabs it and brings it inside. Biting and snarling, the dog hides under Neville’s bed, then burrows into a blanket, then begins to show signs of fever. Neville promises he will cure it. The scene ends thusly:
He sat down on his bed and held the blanket-covered dog in his lap. He sat there for hours holding the dog, patting and stroking and talking. The dog lay immobile in his lap, breathing easier.
It was about eleven that night when Neville slowly undid the blanket folds and exposed the dog’s head.
For a few minutes it cringed away from his hand, snapping a little. But he kept talking to it quietly, and after a while his hand rested on the warm neck and he was moving his fingers gently, scratching and caressing.
He smiled down at the dog, his throat moving.
“You’ll be all better soon,” he whispered. “Real soon.”
The dog looked up at him with its dulled, sick eyes and then its tongue faltered out and licked roughly and moistly across the palm of Neville’s hand.
Something broke in Neville’s throat. He sat there silently while tears ran slowly down his cheeks.
In a week the dog was dead.
[SPOILERS OVER NOW:]
It takes sheer heartlessness on an author’s part to extend that much hope to a character, that much expectation to a reader, and then jerk the rug right out from under everyone. It also makes for damn good reading. I Am Legend is one of those rare treats you get when you’re a compulsive reader like me – a rewarding book by all rights you should have read when you were younger, but now you get to enjoy as an adult.
While not mentioned on the cover, the volume also contains an additional ten short stories spanning Matheson’s career from 1951 to 1989. These range from the short and merely suggestive horrors of “Buried Talents” to the rather cheesy “Witch War.” Much like the semi-unresolvedness of “Buried Talents,” where the horror is merely suggestive, the collection’s closer, “Person to Person” presents an array of options and never conclusively comes down on any one side. It’s a bit maddening, but then that’s most likely the point anyway in a story that might be about mental illness or possession by the devil or governmental conspiracy.
“Dress of White Silk” finds Matheson returning to a vampiric theme, though much like in the novel it is more vampirism as an illness rather than an actual blood curse of demonic origins. Likely a moot point for its victims, but Matheson’s stories gain an additional level of creepiness from his attempts to remove the supernatural element from the so-called undead. “Dance of the Dead” likewise travels the same route, though this time Matheson’s futuristic devices are cornball whacked with hinky sounding jargon and slang that reads more like it was penned by the screenwriters of The Wild One rather than a speculative fiction writer.
Other stand outs include the much anthologized “Prey” with its plot developments straight from Matheson’s tenure at The Twilight Zone (where he wrote the episode “Little Girl Lost” which gave me nightmares for weeks when I was a kid [and which you can watch in three parts in the three links to youtube right there:]), “Mad House” which also boasts Serling-esque elements, and the over the top humor of “The Funeral.” This last piece is the most unlike the others in the collection, mocking as it embraces horror convention and cliché.
While the inside cover boasts a way overblown praise from Ray Bradbury (a man not unfamiliar with hyperbole and super-fanboyish enthusiasms), citing Matheson as “one of the most important writers of the twentieth century,” there’s no doubt that Matheson is enormously gifted at crafting compelling page turners. Sometimes you may wish for a little more delving into the human psyche or a little more experimentalism with form and style, but sometimes all you really want is a gripping good read. In that case, Matheson’s got you covered.