It’s been difficult for me to reconcile the fact that Richard Matheson, who wrote the fantastic and influential vampire novella I Am Legend, is the same man who went on to write Hell House. My brain did not break over sentences punctuated with endless adverbs, or a bizarre obsession with a character’s breasts (as explored so brilliantly by Kristina Butke), or a ridiculous ending that rendered the villain’s entire motivation equally ridiculous. But let’s not dwell on that. I admit that I love vampire novels, and I have read a hefty number of them, as well as numerous “non-fiction” books on the subject. My thesis novel is, on the surface, about a vampire and her preordained killer. And while my novel is fully immersed in the realm of the supernatural, I truly enjoyed the biological/psychological explanation Matheson posited for his vampire plague. I became so engrossed in every aspect of the story that I didn’t even notice the handful of inconsistencies pointed out by Cin Ferguson in her own blog post.
More than that, however, Matheson appealed to my undying (heh) love of post-apocalyptic fiction. Where this story shines is in depicting Robert Neville’s utter solitude as the last uninfected member of the human race, of the insanity to which a social animal is inevitably driven when it is forced into solitude. While reading the book I thought a lot about what it would be like to be in Neville’s shoes, to be an average working-class joe trapped in a world where everyone you ever knew and loved is worse than merely dead; their continued existence is a reminder of all that has been lost, and a mockery of life itself. This is the power of Matheson at his best. Neville’s desperation to befriend a stray dog, and the loss of hope represented by the dog’s death, is one of the most depressing segments of I Am Legend precisely because of our deep-seated need to connect with other living creatures. Neville is, after all, merely in “the habit of living” at this point; emotionally, sexually, socially, he has been dead for a long time, and we see it in his initial reactions to Ruth. Ruth, one of the infected (unknown to Robert at the time, of course), exhibits more compassion and humanity at the end of the book than Neville after his three years of isolation. Yet she awakens in him a spark of emotion beyond mere survival instinct. In a brutal stroke of irony, it is that fear of being alone, of being the last of one’s kind, that is his downfall.
Which brings us to the most important aspect of the book: what is the meaning of the title, and who are the real monsters in Matheson’s terrifying world? The vampires, who come out at night seeking blood, just as they have for centuries? The living infected, who want neither the dead nor any humans in their fledgling society? Or Robert Neville, feared by both groups as their exterminator? As a modern human it is only natural to continue living under the default assumption that humans are the rulers of the world, even when, in Robert’s case, all evidence points to his being the only one left. Until his scheduled execution, Robert Neville resists the idea that the true monster in this new civilization was him all along, and indeed, Matheson let us believe that Neville was just doing what he had to in order to stay alive. To the living infected and their vision of rebuilding society, however, he is a terror that must be stopped. And so, in the end, we witness the inversion of one of humanity’s most enduring myths. On a planet populated by vampires, it is the last human, the killer of vampires, who becomes the subject of legend. One wonders if the infected scare each other with stories of humans hiding in the mountains, who will kill vampires on sight…
Oh, and stop watching that stupid Will Smith movie. It doesn’t even deserve to have the same title.