I am Legend and Other Stories by Richard Matheson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
With the recent death of Richard Matheson, I thought this would be a good time to review his iconic work, I Am Legend. It's ironic that I Am Legend is itself a legend. Its influence and legacy cannot be overstated. It created the post apocalyptic survivor genre, took a scientific approach to vampires that led to the scientific zombie genre, and has been referenced in movies, TV, and literature. It famously inspired Romero to create Night of the Living Dead, which led to the zombie explosion that's now a part of pop culture today. And of course, it led to the recent Will Smith movie.
That's why the book itself is surprising in its simplicity. I Am Legend is a novella, not a full novel, and the copy I read came packaged with a few other stories. I won't review those stories, because I really just wanted to read "I Am Legend."
The novella picks up with the life of Robert Neville, who believes himself to be the sole human survivor of a devastating plague. But he is not alone. Other humans, including his neighbor, have been turned into vampire-like creatures that come every night to try to kill him. Neville has turned his house into a fortress, and spends the night barricaded and trying to resist the taunting of the vampires. During the day, he goes out to hunt the vampires as they sleep, and try to find a cure for the plague.
I'll be honest - not too much happens through most of the story. It's really about the life that Neville lives, how he's adapted to the new world he finds himself in. As I said, it's primarily about his survival and the resources he's developed. It feels claustrophobic and cerebral as Neville struggles to maintain a normal life among the chaos.
Neville also spends a fair bit of time trying to understand the plague, and we see his discoveries about why the vampires are the way they are, and why they avoid garlic, sunlight, and crosses.
Things pick up towards the end, when Neville encounters a woman who seems to be another survivor. For the first time, he has hope that he can start to rebuild civilization. But can he trust her?
It's a very good story, but feels brief when compared to the more complex survivor stories common today with multiple characters, the threat of barricades failing, resources running out, etc. At the same time, it has a realistic and introspective quality that makes it stand out. Neville is struggling more psychologically than physically with a sense of hopelessness and despair. We really feel for his plight.
All in all, it's a great story that any fan of post apocalyptic fiction should read.
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