Richard Matheson – I Am Legend

So, I’ve got a confession. I’m not really warming up to my current N.K. Jemisin read (even after a quarter of the book) so I thought I’d read something short in between to get me back in the mood. And what better than a book about the – probably – last living man on Earth fighting off hordes of vampires every night?

I AM LEGEND
by Richard Matheson

published: Gollancz, 2006 (1954)
ISBN: 0575094168
pages: 160
copy: paperback

my rating: 8/10
goodreads rating: 4.04/5

first sentence: On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.

Robert Neville is the last man left alive on Earth…but he is not alone. Every other man, woman and child on the planet has become a vampire. Neville spends his days scavenging for food and supplies, and hunting down the undead in their lairs in the ruins of civilisation. At night, he becomes the hunted and barricades himself in his home, waiting and praying for the dawn.

Here’s some more praise for the SF Masterworks series. While a very slim one, this novel managed to grab my attention on the first page and didn’t let go until I turned the last. There is a particular horror in this tale of a lone man, fighting for survival every day and every night. Robert Neville, while not without flaws, is easy to understand. In a situation like his, being the last man in the world – at least the part of the world that he knows – and dealing with not just the horror of vampires waiting in front of his house ever night, hoping to drink his blood, but also a worse horror: loneliness. For me it was that loneliness that set the tone of the novel.

We follow a man who hasn’t talked to a living creature in months, years even, and whose sole consolation is classical music and – not surprising – alcohol. He goes through the motions, demanded by the situation. Fixing his house where the vampires ripped off wooden bars, putting up new strings of fresh garlic every day, driving out during the day to get food and supplies. While this beginning was certainly the most bleak part of the story, I enjoyed it the most. Richard Matheson has a knack for setting a scene with very few words and Robert Neville’s life was terrible to read. In a good way.

Being the last man on Earth, there are not many characters to speak of. We do get flashbacks to scenes with his wife and neighbor, and he does interact with the creatures around him. If you’ve seen the movie, you know there’s a dog around at one point of the story. This part was particularly heartbreaking for me. Whenever Robert got his hopes up – deciding to take matters into his own hands, learning about this virus or whatever it was that caused the vampire plague – and maybe even developing a vaccine, my hopes went up too.

I won’t say anything about the last third of the book. It did hold a little surprise in store for me (I never did finish that movie so I have no idea if it ends the same way) and the ending, as devastating as it may be, was utterly fitting and left me with a bad feeling in my guts. Again, there are only few pages to this book, but the author manages to get some great themes in. Oppressive loneliness, almost-hopelessness, what defines normality, and what makes you go on when there is no visible reason to even want to?

This won’t be the last story by Richard Matheson for me. As depressing as it was, it was a skillfully told story that utterly fascinated me. Me, who is so focused on characters. I was completely satisfied to stay in Robert Neville’s head for the entirety of this novel and not meet another living soul. A very well written story – even though I would have enjoyed more flashbacks.

THE GOOD: A gripping, terrifying tale of a man entirely alone in this world, fighting a hopeless fight.
THE BAD: More (or longer) flashbacks would have been nice to make the knowledge of Neville’s wife and child being dead even sadder. Yeah, I like to suffer with book characters.
THE VERDICT: This is a great “vampire book” that won’t take up much of your reading time but will give you a couple of thrilling hours. It also makes you appreciate not being alone…

RATING: 8/10 Excellent

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2 thoughts on “Richard Matheson – I Am Legend

  1. bradleyonfilm says:

    Nice summary of this novel, which gets at a lot of the points that have made it such an enduring classic over the years. Neville is not always likable, but he and his story are always interesting, keeping the reader consistently engrossed. And, as you point out, the loneliness is perhaps the worst horror. Don’t know which film version you were unable to finish, but there have been three official adaptations: THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964), with Vincent Price; THE OMEGA MAN (1971), with Charlton Heston; and I AM LEGEND (2007), with Will Smith. Recently named the best vampire novel of the 20th century, I AM LEGEND has been extremely influential in many other ways, most notably as the acknowledged inspiration for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. For further information, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4216-4).

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