I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)
Did it help me that I’ve never seen any of the movies? That’s partly why I picked it for the 1950s stop on the journey. This book has been turned into a movie four times, but I’ve never managed to see one of them. I may have to remedy that.
The last book in the decade sequence I really enjoyed is several decades back, and the crisp, clean prose of I Am Legend paired with the slow reveal of the protagonist’s situation had me from the first chapter. It’s fair to say I dove right into this book, picking it up in odd moments but trying to take at least a chapter at a time when I could. Those chapters are mostly quite short, so that was easier than I’d expected going in.
I am Legend seems to have been billed as horror, but I only agree with that label in the same vague way I agree with the original Frankenstein being horror: some of the scenes and imagery are horrific, but there’s an undercurrent of reality and science almost from the beginning of the story. In fact, it we don’t even see the word vampire until the third chapter, though we’ve been led steadily in that direction since the first page.
No, this starts out as post-apocalyptic Science Fiction with a vampiric twist, but the science sneaks in and becomes harder almost unnoticed. And that science is critical to the story.
In the world before vampires, Neville was a factory worker. In the world after it, as maybe one of the last humans on the planet, the last human, at least, in his little section of the planet, he goes through cycles of self-abuse, emotional instability, and survival at all costs. He’s a carpenter and a craftsman and a survivalist and a vampire hunter.
And then he sets out to figure out the whole vampire thing. How they came about, how the plague happened. I Am Legend was written in the 1950s and takes place in the 1970s. Neville uses a library to learn. Starting with the mythology and history of vampires and all the things they’re supposed to be able to do and not like. He eventually connects the plague with germs and teaches himself basic biology, and the mechanics of microscopes. His workshop slowly transforms into a lab, he gathers samples, and he investigates.
He discovers a bacterium.
From there Neville quickly works out a rational explanation, growing from his understanding and studies, of how the plague of vampires of 1975 came to be. The realization that there should be two distinct kinds of vampire, the living and the dead, comes fast.
Of course, he’s still got a lot more investigating to do in order to explain things completely, and emotionally, it’s not exactly healthy to think you might be the last human alive trying to solve the reason for your species’ death. It’s a long process.
And then there’s the dog. By the time we meet the nameless mutt, Neville has been alone for a year and has barely even heard the sound of his own voice in that time. Trying to tame the dog, trying to have a pet, a friend, something to care about, almost breaks him several times.
There’s still more story, as Neville adapts and learns, and the change of the world is no less jarring and enjoyable for flowing completely logical from the story. And the ending is both tragic and poignant, but I’ll avoid spoiling it completely. Of all the books I’ve read on this tiny historical survey, this is the first one I’m going to say, “Go read this,” and you don’t need spoilers.
Overall rating: 4.5 stars. I Am Legend is a short novel. In fact, by official standards, at 25,000 words, it isn’t a novel, but a novella. When published, it was a book on its own. You can still buy it that way, I think, a slim volume among the bricks, and I’m fine calling this a book regardless, but I’m getting side tracked again. I Am Legend has a clean, character-driven story and easy prose that gives you just the right amount of verbage and description to pull you through on the strength of the author’s words with a little help from your imagination. It’s really good writing and it’s one of those books I hoped to find when I started this leg of the journey.
And I’m wondering which of the movie adaptations I should start with.