After Richard Matheson passed, I thought long and hard about which of his novels to re-read to remember the legendary author. I’d already re-watched a number of his Twilight Zone episodes, many of which were great, several of which touched on similar themes with varying degrees of success. But I wanted to read one of his books and post a review. I have several of his most famous ones on my to-be-read pile, but I kept getting drawn back to his first classic, I Am Legend. In part because it was the first Matheson novel I’d read, in part because it’s comparatively short—the Tor/Orb edition I own was packed with a baker’s dozen short stories to make the book of marketable size.
I’d argue this is Matheson’s most famous work, if only because it was filmed three times, spreading its themes to generations. The original, 1964’s The Last Man On Earth, was a Vincent Price vehicle that was pretty good for a B-movie, hitting on most of the novel’s points though Price was miscast as the everyman protagonist. The second was 1971’s The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, which had little to do with the novel and was more a re-imagining of the “last human” theme in an apocalyptic world ravaged by radioactive fallout and mutation. The third was Will Smith’s 2007 blockbuster I Am Legend; the first few acts were close to the book with brilliant visions of a New York wasteland, though the ending diverged from the book simply to make it a happy one, dropping (among other things) the metaphors and meaning of the title in lieu of a Hollywood Happy Ending. Fourth time’s the charm, right?
It is the future; the year is 1973. Robert Neville survived the plague. His family did not. His neighbor, Ben Cortman, didn’t either, though he arrives night after night to taunt Neville. In fact, for all Neville knows no one else survived the spread of vampirism that caused the dead to rise from their graves and the living to thirst for blood. Neville has fortified his house and holed up for years, scavenging for supplies during the day, withstanding the assault of vampiric mobs at night. Truth be told, Neville doesn’t have time to do much more than survive, though he does have plans—to find the cause, maybe even a cure. And he does have needs—companionship, conversation, the pleasures of the flesh, crude versions of which the vampires use to mock him as they call for him each night to leave his house.
Neville prowls the barren streets of Los Angeles by day, slaying vampires, dumping their husks into the charnel pit devised by the authorities to cremate the dead to prevent their reanimation. Neville experiments with the superstitions of old, seeking for a rhyme or reason why some things—mirrors, garlic, sunlight, crosses—are effective, while others—running water, bullets—are not. He is the last man on earth, but he is not alone: after spotting a dog during the daytime, there are signs that there are others about. And the truth of his isolation is the single most dangerous, damning fact in the world.
Much has been made of Matheson’s influence on the zombie apocalypse (zombipocalypse) genre; certainly, in our post-Night of the Living Dead world his shambling hordes of plague-spawned vampires have more similarities to the zombies in 28 Days Later or World War Z than the vampires of Dracula and Interview With The Vampire. Their intelligence is limited, though their thirst for Neville’s blood is not, and they swarm his house every night to assault it with bricks and fists. Some of the similarities come from Matheson’s attempts to avoid the gothic overtones and rationalize vampirism through science: making its root a germ spawned by biological warfare at the end of a vague World War III, spread by dust storms and swarms of mosquitoes that ravaged the “victorious” powers.
And Matheson’s use of “science” is where he is most creative and most tenuous, as was pointed out by Damon Knight’s In Search of Wonder. After a snap decision, Neville changes his long-standing opinion and decides the cause is germs after all. Why? Plot. After going through two microscopes and 37 slides of blood, self-taught everyman Neville makes the discovery the world’s greatest scientists couldn’t (or rather on they didn’t reveal to the public): a single bacillus. Case closed, it’s germs. Why? Plot. Every so often, Neville asks himself a question the reader’s been pondering—e.g., why haven’t the vampires burned his house down if they want him so badly—which gets some off-hand explanation. Why? Probably because the answer was the first thing Matheson could think of. The reader must struggle over a series of contrivances that lack realism but make for great entertainment, and if scientific verisimilitude is your thing, this book could be infuriating.
What Matheson does best is create an everyman character—a talent he was renown for, with his Ersatz Matheson Everymen—and place them in uncomfortable, tense situations. Matheson was very open about the fact that all of his characters were variants of Richard Matheson, which is why they often have the same quirks and vagaries, their blandness and lack of ambition thrown sink-or-swim into dangerous situations. That’s where the tension comes from. They’re not two-fisted pulp heroes or brainy super scientists, they’re everyday people living Grand Theft Normal Boring Lives. Now, without any formal knowledge or training they must survive, thrive, and overcome dangerous odds and adversaries. Neville has the short end of the stick since he must survive in a world where walking outside after dusk is a death sentence.
And now, a paragraph with some spoilers. The other area Matheson excels at is the reversal of the ages-old Dracula theme—the vampires come out at night, so Neville goes forth by day to destroy them and dump their bodies into the ever-burning charnel pit . (I’m sad that this great and sinister horror element was forgotten.) Near the end of the book, Neville discovers that some of the smarter vampires have used their own science to create not a cure but a crutch—a pill that lets them go out in sunlight—and are crafting their own society, with him not in it. The title is the brilliant realization that Neville has become to them and their society what Dracula was to his—a murderous bogeyman who attacks victims in their sleep, ripping babes from cradle, separating lovers from their embrace.
What Richard Matheson penned is a masterwork of isolation and survival in a dying world, one that just so happens to involve plagues of vampires. His idea of rationalizing supernatural horror by scientific means is a brilliant idea, even if his science is questionable and some of his answers flimsy. (Contrast Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think, which tried to do the same for lycanthropy decades earlier). Where Matheson shines is portraying the bleak isolation of his protagonist: the moments of tension, the emotional build-up for something as simple as trying to save a sick dog. The novel is short, and flawed, but resonates with subconscious dread and crippling loneliness in a bleak apocalyptic setting. Recommended by far.