I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Genre: Horror / Sci-Fi
Publisher: Gollancz (Originally published 1954)
Synopsis: Robert Neville is the last living man on Earth… but he is not alone. Every other man, woman and child on the planet has become a vampire, and they are hungry for Neville’s blood.
By day he is the hunter, stalking the undead through the ruins of civilisation. By night, he barricades himself in his home and prays for the dawn.
How long can one man survive like this?
I’d been wanting to read I Am Legend for quite a while after seeing the film adaptation with Will Smith a few years ago. However, I had heard that the film was very different to the novel. I really enjoyed the film so I was a little apprehensive about what could be different. Oddly, it was one of those times where I was worried the book wouldn’t be as good as the film, when normally it’s the other way around! Thankfully, whilst the book and film are very different, I still thoroughly enjoyed the novel.
The two are only really similar on a basic level. The main protagonist is a man called Robert Neville, who believes himself to most probably be the last man alive in an America ravaged by a vampiric virus. And that’s pretty much it, if I’m honest. From here on out, the two take different paths.
Whilst the vampire-zombies of the film adaptation are these vicious, naked and hairless ex-humans with no semblance of humanity left, the vampire-zombies of the novel are a little different. They still hold a basic sense of humanity (in a feral way) in that some of them can speak a few words, still wear clothes, and like to stand outside Robert Neville’s house trying to goad him out. Most notably, the women do this by prancing about naked.
Sounds a bit funny, right? This book is actually full to the brim with dark humour. I felt a lot of sympathy for Neville’s plight, and his episodes of hysteria, but he was also quite funny. As I mentioned, some of the vampires are still able to speak, albeit simple things. I say “some”, but really the only one who does is Ben Cortman, Neville’s neighbour and workmate. Every night, the vampires come to his house, and every night Ben Cortman stands there and shouts, “Come out, Neville!”
Above the noises, he heard Ben Cortman shout as he always shouted.
“Come out, Neville!”
Someday I’ll get that bastard, he thought as he took a big swallow of the bitter drink. Someday I’ll knock a stake right through his goddamn chest. I’ll make one a foot long for him, a special one with ribbons on it, the bastard.
It’s just really quite funny, but also sad and distressing at the same time. Neville is hounded every night by a man who was once his friend and is now a vampire out for his blood. It becomes a sort of pitiful running joke throughout the book that made me laugh but also made me quite sad.
Whilst there’s a lot of dark humour, underneath it all is the realisation that Neville is a lonely and tortured man. After all, this is a horror. Whilst it has its moments of comic relief(ish), it’s also terrifying, especially the opening line:
On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.
It was such an unsettling opening line to read. It’s simple yet effective, and that’s what Richard Matheson’s writing is all about. It’s unsettling and without flourish, the kind that gets under your skin before you know it. He doesn’t need big chase scenes or the threat of death to scare you; it’s not your typical jump-scare horror. Instead, he ramps up the tension through Neville’s mental state. Sometimes Neville is doing okay, he’s getting on with things. Other times, he’s completely falling apart and making mistakes and rash decisions. You sit there thinking ‘what are you doing?!’ and praying that he makes it back to his house before sunset. I thought his character development was really excellent and the main highlight of the book.
The only reason I deducted half a star for this book is that I would have liked it to be a little longer. It’s quite a short book and didn’t take me long to read, and there were a few more questions I wanted answers to. Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed it. A quick yet effective read. If you enjoyed the film, then I urge you to read the book; I think the premise is handled more effectively in the novel, and with more subtlety. And if you’re a big fan of all things zombie like I am, then read this! It’s well known that I Am Legend is the precursor to the modern zombie craze.
Have you read I Am Legend? Or seen the film? Did you enjoy it/them? Let me know in the comments below!