by: Richard Matheson
Most people are familiar with the feature film I am Legend starring Will Smith. For big cinephiles, you may have seen Omega Man or the Last Man on Earth which are also based on the book I am Legend. The original story was written by the master of horror Richard Matheson. I read it for the first time after the release of I Am Legend and have multiple times since.
“In a world of monotonous horror there could be no salvation in wild dreaming.”
I am a fast reader and it’s a shorter book, but I read the book in under 24 hours which was ridiculous even for me. I was unable to put it down even for a moment. It joined me for meals and for bathroom visits. When a book leaves you in a wake of destruction after it concludes you know it was good. I am Legend left me in a state of awe, reflection, and curiosity. The power of a great book is not to be trifled with.
In this post-apocalyptic horror novel, the story is set in 1954 where a disease has mutated and vampires are all that survive, other than Robert Neville. You become an observer of Neville’s methodic existence. It’s apparent immediately that Neville’s need to exist comes from pure instinct alone. After five months of being what seems to be the last man alive, he starts his day off with a glass of whiskey. He revels in self-loathing and the fact that it seems only he has managed to survive. We learn he has fortified his house, but we don’t know yet what he is hiding from.
“How quickly one accepts the incredible if only one sees it enough.”
The plot moves faster here as we become privy to the existence of vampires. They are some kind of manifestation from a plague that helped kill off the human race along with its benefactor…these vampires. Though Neville seems very safe in his home, a group of sentient vampires come every night to taunt him with the hopes he will end his life by prolonging theirs. At this point, the solitude and monotony of his existence are tearing Neville apart. He has seen unimaginable horrors and has no answers as to how or why they happened in the first place. Anytime he asks questions, he only winds up with more questions after those are answered. The vampires aren’t killing him, but loneliness is.
“For he was a man and he was alone and these things had no importance to him.”
A few months pass and Neville attempts his own research, but it goes nowhere quickly. He begins to lament about his former life and is sure he’s ready to end himself when something shocking happens. He finds a dog that has managed to exist. Some very important things happen in the chapters with the dog and thereafter sets the finale of the book into a play. The twist, the answer, the explanation, the ending of the book is not what I or I think anyone else would imagine. Without giving it away I will simply say it couldn’t have been more simple or more complete. After it happens you simply have an obvious understanding of something bigger than the individual experience. Suddenly life is much larger and evolution and nature exploit this.
“Full circle. A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend.”
This is a masterpiece. I don’t toss that word around lightly either. It’s stood the test of time and is probably more relevant today than when it was written. There is an unveiling, but there is plenty to draw your own conclusions about as well. The movies are fun and entertaining, but this is the real deal.
As Neville said, suddenly things came full circle. An absolutely amazing book. It is one of the most profound and frightening stories I’ve read since The Shining as a teenager.