SF/Horror Book Review: I am Legend by Richard Matheson
If I was reviewing “I am Legend” alone, this would be a 4 star review, maybe even 4.5. After all, it is the vampire novel that gave birth to zombie fiction!
No, really. Although Matheson’s tale features the last man alive in a battle for survival against a host of vampires, “I am Legend” is much more akin to the zombie lit that has followed, than what we (or I should say, I) associate with modern vampire fiction. I never really jumped on the zombie bandwagon, but I have always enjoyed a good vampire tale (Anne Rice defined my angsty teenage years), and I think that Matheson succeeds in both genres. What is even more impressive is that “I am Legend” was written in 1954, and has influenced countless contemporary masters of horror and SF since.
Of course, “I am Legend” is not the first vampire novel (novella, in this case), nor is it the first dystopian or plague novel for that matter. Detractors from this work love to point this out as if not being the first somehow negates the work’s influence on popular culture. One gets the feeling that some of these people still believe in “original” art, as if there is such a thing as a completely new idea. Sorry, folks, it’s all been done before. Literature is an evolution of ideas. Just because something has been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done again, and done better. That’s the fun of writing, isn’t it? Expressing old ideas in new ways?
“I am Legend” is a moody, self-reflective tale about the end of the world. Robert Neville, the protagonist, battles fear, loneliness, anger, and despair as the last human being untouched by the plague that has turned the rest of the world into vampires. He’s perhaps not a likeable character, he spends a lot of time wallowing in self-pity and drinking himself into a stupor, but that’s not to say that he’s not a believable character. Matheson’s prose is descriptive without being flowery, the repetition of scenes and themes that many found irritating, to me served to build an idea of the necessarily mundane routine of Neville’s life. He is confined to a small area of the city, defined by how far he can go and still make it back to the safety of his house by sundown. His life consists of gathering supplies, maintaining his property, dispatching any vampires he finds and, later on, researching the plague. When something disturbs this routine, such as finding the dog or the woman, the reader is shocked—as Neville is shocked—as much by the disturbance as by how little it takes to make a profound impact on a lonely man’s existence.
The story is only about 170 pages long, so the tedium of Neville’s world doesn’t bog the reader down (or I didn’t find it did). Had it been longer, I think Matheson would have needed to add more action to maintain the pace of the story, but this would have detracted from the intensely moody landscape he’s built. It is the lack of action that is so disturbing in “I am Legend,” and that is what makes the ending so shocking, in contrast. Neville’s perspective shifts so suddenly that it is disorienting, for the reader and for him. The skill with which Matheson delivers the transition of Ben Cortman from antagonist to pitiable victim was gut-wrenching and unexpected. And Neville’s last thought in the novel, the titular phrase “I am Legend,” has chilling implications.
Some people were bothered by Matheson’s “pseudo-science,” finding that his attempts to explain the plague were ham-handed or just silly. But I think they forget that this was written in the mid-1950’s, and that what we recognize as being impossible or implausible today would not necessarily have been so then. I feel it’s an unfair criticism. Even if Matheson should have known better (I have no idea what stage the study of virus and bacteria were at in the ‘50’s) it’s a red herring argument. This is not hard science fiction, the science behind the plague wasn’t important to the story at all. What was important, was seeing a man’s desperate attempt to explain and understand his circumstances. The way that Neville was able to create a sense of normalcy for himself by pursing an answer to the age-old question of why thing happen the way they do. So Matheson’s science is a little far-fetched, I get it. But had it been more plausible, it would have had no effect on the outcome of the story. It was the act of researching that had meaning for Neville, not the answers themselves, in my opinion.
Sadly, the rest of the stories in this collection didn’t really do it for me. I won’t go into them here, as most people who pick up this book are likely only doing so for “I am Legend”, but rate them as follows:
“I am Legend” 4-4.5/5
“Buried Talents” 2/5
“The Near Departed” 1/5
“Witch War” 1/5
“Dance of the Dead” 3/5
“Dress of White Silk” 2/5
“Mad House” 3/5
“The Funeral” 3/5
“From Shadowed Places” 2/5
“Person to Person” 3.5/5
***A couple of complaints on the edition I bought: Nowhere on the cover, with the exception of some fine print on the back, does this mention that there are other stories than the titular one inside. When I bought it on Amazon (don’t shoot me) I had no idea that this was a collection of short stories. I accidently discovered this when reading a review of “I am Legend” and I realized that the book I was reading was far too thick to be a novella, as the reviewer described it. I guess it’s not a big deal, but I felt kind of deceived…
Worse than this misrepresentation of “I am Legend” as a three-hundred page novel, is the tacky red star on the front of the book proudly proclaiming that the tale is “Now a major motion picture starring Will Smith!”. If they have to do that, why couldn’t it be a sticker? Why print it on there, forever scarring what otherwise was some pretty cool cover art? Especially annoying because the big red star didn’t show up on Amazon’s preview image (not the book’s fault, I guess, but still annoying). Grrr!