First published back in 1954, Richard Matheson’s debut novel ‘I Am Legend’ later became the initial inspiration behind George A. Romero’s cult classic zombie flick ‘Night Of The Living Dead’ (1968). For his part in this inspired premise, Romero shifted the marauding threat from vampires to that of newly fangled zombies, within the bleak post-apocalyptic setting. And as such, from here the whole modern-day post-apocalyptic zombie concept was first realised.
The novel was later adapted into the films ‘The Last Man on Earth’ (1964) with Vincent Price, ‘The Omega Man’ (1971) with Charlton Heston and ‘I Am Legend’ (2007) with Will Smith. However, none of these films are a patch on this incredible and disturbing novel. Although, ‘The Last Man On Earth’ (1964) does deliver the closest representation of the events that take place within the book.
Thirty-six-year-old Robert Neville had been alone for some time now. Alone in a world clinging to a hope of finding someone else left alive. A sole survivor left in the wake of the end of humanity. A last living man amongst a plague of vampires.
Neville was trying to understand what had happened to humanity. A pandemic had erupted and spread across the globe. There had been an explosion in the mosquito population. Factors and possibilities that could have a link to humanities end. But nothing that made much sense to him. And so Neville would spend the daylight hours scouring the local vicinity for supplies whilst searching for resting vampires so that he could drive a stake through their cold dead hearts.
At night Neville hides away in his house along Cimarron Street that he had once shared with his wife and daughter; barricaded in to protect him from the roaming vampires outside. Around his property Neville had left mirrors, crucifixes and garlic to repel the attention of the undead. However that doesn’t stop the vampire that had once been his neighbour, Ben Cortman, from tormenting him each night. But so far Cortman hadn’t managed to get into Neville’s home. Despite his repeated attempts night after night, his vampyric neighbour had so far failed to get anywhere near Neville. But Corman’s lingering presence each night, along with his constant taunting and the sounds of his pack of fellow vampires, snarling and fighting, was beginning to take its toll on Neville.
Memories of his wife still plagued Neville’s mind. Having to kill her to prevent her from joining the ranks of the bloodthirsty dead had left its mark on him. Neville had begun to seek solace in alcohol. A downward spiral of depression dragging Neville into a deep pit of self-loathing. And then he heard the sounds of barking.
Knowing that there was a dog out there, a dog that had somehow survived through this living nightmare, brought Neville back. He knew he needed the dog. He needed the company. He needed the reassurance of a friend, even if it was just a canine one. And so Neville began his desperate attempts at earning the stray dog’s trust.
But Neville’s desperation at finding a companion in this empty and godforsaken world would soon find another avenue for his energies. Out there he knew were answers to what had happened to his entire race. He may be the last man on earth now, but he still had work to do. And a lot of vampires to kill…
From the very outset Matheson delivers a claustrophobic and vividly oppressive vision of a post-apocalyptic world. Robert Neville’s reaction to the bleak situation is a very human one and one which Matheson projects with a haunting air of believability. Severe depression from an avalanche of mental strain consumes our principal character; his inner battle to cope with the situation, a monumental feat in itself. Indeed, this underlying loneliness and emotional claustrophobia is a close reminder of George Orwell’s classic novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1949) which predates ‘I Am Legend’ by just five years.
Matheson draws together a multitude of well thought out ideas and reactions to this inspired premise. Neville’s decision to always have a gun within easy reaching distance within his house, the almost OCD nature of his food organisation, and the systematic approach to searching out the vampire lair, is so thoroughly well contrived in makes the tale almost believable. It’s these details and loving analysis of the dilemma at hand that completely submerges the reader within the storyline.
The literary skill on display within the novel is easily quantifiable by the genuine fear that the reader feels for Neville after he accidently loses track of time, finding himself caught out in the streets of Los Angeles with dusk swiftly approaching. Perched on the edge-of-the-seat, the reader becomes lost within the sheer panic of the situation.
The novel packs in a gritty and true-to-life reaction to the otherwise outlandish plot. How would you react? How would you cope? Copious questions are brought to the surface in quick succession throughout the relatively short length of the tale.
Matheson’s clever emotional bridge between Neville’s newly acquired dog Sam and the reader, carefully exploits the ingrained sensitivity for such connections; building upon a raw and heart-wrenching but entirely compelling sub-story. Indeed, one can’t help but ponder whether the inclusion of Sam was perhaps inspired by the final few pages of Mary Shelly’s post-apocalyptic novel ‘The Last Man’ (1826). With such potential for an obvious desperation for human bonding, the notion of man’s best friend filling this gap leads to such a host of emotional possibilities – which Matheson successfully taps into with masterful ease.
‘I Am Legend’ delivers an eye-opening social commentary, offering up the final posing question of a subverted understanding as to who the true menace within this new world really is. With Neville killing off numerous vampires, as he sees is his duty; at what point does the concept of this murderous justification shift from one side to the other? The thoroughly downbeat conclusion to the novel is breathtaking in its frankly crushing realisation. With the vast majority of the novel drawing the reader along with the single-minded point of view of our principle character, when the curtain is allowed to be dropped on the wider picture, the greater understanding is as humbling as it is saddening.
The novel runs for a total of 160 pages.
© DLS Reviews