I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson book coverGenre: Horror
Publisher: Tor
Published: 1954
Reviewer Rating: three and a half stars
Book Review by Jeff Edwards

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By night, Robert Neville barricades himself in his home, drinking whiskey and turning up the music to drown out the sound of vampires calling to him from outside. By day, Neville checks the boarded-up windows, generator, water tank, and the hothouse where he grows garlic. He makes stakes, lathing them out of thick doweling, and uses them to kill the sleeping vampires that he finds in the surrounding neighborhoods. And he wonders when he will simply give up, open the door at night, and become one of them.

The reader learns via flashbacks that the Earth’s population has been all but obliterated by a plague borne on dust storms. Matheson’s scientific explanations for vampirism are clever, but readers may tire of the incessant talk of bacillus, protoplasm, and bacteriophages. Matheson uses laughable psychobabble in his analysis of the vampires’ aversion to religious icons and mirrors. “Once they were forced to accept vindication of the dread of being repelled by an object that had been a focal point of worship, their minds could have snapped…And, driven on despite already created dreads, the vampire could have acquired an intense mental loathing, and this self-hatred could have set up a block in their weakened minds causing them to be blind to their own abhorred images.”

Matheson is far more effective in his descriptions of Neville’s everyday life, how even as dusk falls and the vampires gather, Neville goes to the freezer and selects “two lamb chops, string beans, and a small box of orange sherbet” along with a can of tomato juice from the “uneven stacks of cans piled to the ceiling.” It’s like when Jonathan Harker travels through the Carpathians in “Dracula,” and writes in his journal, “I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty…called ‘paprika hendl.'” Such specific details help to ground even the most fantastic tale and urge the reader toward a suspension of disbelief.

Published in 1954, fifty-seven years after Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” I Am Legend is often called one of the most influential vampire novels of the twentieth century. Matheson’s innovation is plucking the vampire from its Gothic trappings and transplanting the creature into modern suburbia. The vampires that Robert Neville fights are not refined, educated Eastern Europeans – they are clumsy, shambling husks that used to be his neighbors.

Stephen King has said, “The author who influenced me the most as a writer was Richard Matheson.” That influence is clearly seen when comparing the two authors’ work. In “Salem’s Lot,” King populates a modern American town with vampires, much as Matheson did twenty-one years earlier. King’s “Pet Semetary” features a kind of homage to I Am Legend, when a character rises from the dead in a scene that mirrors Matheson’s handling of the same situation. King may even have had I Am Legend in mind when he started writing “The Stand,” an epic novel that opens with a superflu wiping out most of the Earth’s population.

I Am Legend has been “officially” adapted to the screen twice – first in 1964 as “The Last Man on Earth” starring Vincent Price, then in 1971 as “The Omega Man” starring Charlton Heston. But more important is its “unofficial” adaptation, in George Romero’s 1968 film, “The Night of the Living Dead,” which has in turn inspired countless flesh-eating zombie movies. Available as a trade paperback that also includes some of Matheson’s short fiction, I Am Legend is well worth the read for anyone not familiar with the novel and its resounding influence in genre books and motion pictures.

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