I Am Legend

Published January 18, 2012 by Jennifer Loring

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.

10 comments on “I Am Legend

  • You spark my interest when you mention Neville being in "the habit of living." I took his character conversion the opposite direction. I saw Neville as merely being in the habit of living before the dog. He was addicted to the drugs of life: alcohol, sex, socialization. He compares himself to a monk after the dog, and I see that as a sign that he learned life and happiness are more than what our culture/flesh dictates them to be. Neville learns to find joy in hunting his neighbor, and even after the loss of the dog, he stops drinking. Also, he learns to control his sexual urges, and even though they emerge upon meeting Ruth, I still saw Neville as having complete control. Instead of having sex, he found pleasure in simple contact, the embrace. Even after losing everything (the dog included), Neville's character development allowed him to find other pleasures in life, not just rely on survival instinct. This development is one reason why the ending didn't work for me: since Neville had become like a monk over the years, I don't understand why he didn't pack up and move to the mountains. He had already accepted his loss of everything anyway.

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  • The "habit of living" was Neville's own quote at the end of the book, and I don't think he ever fully accepted the loss of everything, hence why he couldn't break that habit. He couldn't leave his house precisely because it represented everything that had been lost.

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  • I loved that fact that he turned the idea of the "monster" on its head. It was actually my favorite part of the book–even though it was also the one thing that was completely obvious to me the entire time. It all goes back to that old notion that everyone is the hero of their own story. And so, to the villain, the hero is the wrongdoer.

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  • I loved that line “the habit of living.” Many times in my own life I have wondered if I am only hanging on out of sheer habit, so I could very much relate to the idea of simply soldiering on when everything around you has gone wonky and bad. I was also fascinated by the idea that the monster-chasing hero finds that, in his pursuits, he has become a monster himself. I have to disagree with you on the Will Smith movie, however. There is little chance that any movie could bring across the novel exactly, or even too closely, without ending up a serious bore on the screen. They are two different mediums, and I believe for its purpose, the film did an excellent job. If you want to see it done poorly, go check out The Omega Man, or The Last man on Earth, or worse yet I am Omega.

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  • Jennifer – I, too, liked your insight that Robert was already one of the walking dead before the end of the book. It's difficult to pigeonhole this book as horror (although the scene where he forgot to set his watch makes my adrenaline amp up every time) – it would be a great book to teach to high school students about alienation and isolation. (Okay, it would be good for SOME teacher to use – in my conservative, mainly Republican school, I'd be out of a job.) Your comment on Chris Shearer's site, that we'd feel more pathos for the untenable Ruth/Neville relationship if Ruth had been introduced sooner, was very insightful. As always, I love your posts.

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  • Ha ha! Thanks for the shout out in your post!When I took Scott's Monsters class in 2010 we also started with "I Am Legend." I thought it was well written and very emotionally gripping at times. I brought up the film in my post, too…but I praised it for how it did an excellent job conveying how alone Robert is (that mannequin scene!). But yeah, the ending certainly was…uh….*

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  • Hi Jennifer! Found a link to your blog through Twit Publishing's twitter account. Saw the Matheson piece (I'm a big fan).I liked the first half of the Will Smith movie and found it to be the most faithful of all the film adaptations…up to that point. Of course it deviated somewhat, but mainly to update the story for a modern audience. Where it went wrong, in my humble opinion, was making the vampires into CGI creatures rather than using real actors or make-up effects. Something was lost there, I think, by doing that.Also, of course, the whole second half of the film falls apart when it goes in a completely different direction from the novel. The best part of I AM LEGEND (again, in my opinion) is the twist ending. The revelation that Neville is not a hero because he is the sole living human on a world of vampires, but in actuality, he is the monster in their eyes. He is the boogeyman to a new domninant race on Earth.It was a cool twist and I don't understand why they changed it for the movie. But what does it matter? The printed version will always be there.Yes, the book (novella) is not perfect and has its inconsistencies, but it's still a cool and compelling story, and quite possibly my favorite of Matheson's rather long list of published works.

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  • Hi Slade, thanks for finding me, and thanks for the input! I totally agree with you on the CGI aspect. My boyfriend and I constantly find ourselves bemoaning the current state of special effects in film–SFX makeup seems to be a lost art when directors can choose the easy way out through CGI.I look forward to your comments on future posts. 🙂

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