Updated on May 24, 2015
10. ‘I Am Legend’ by Richard Matheson
Maybe, like me, you saw the Will Smith movie version of I Am Legend before reading the book. In that case, you might too have been surprised to learn that Matheson’s novel isn’t about zombies. It’s about vampires. Classic, afraid of mirrors and crosses, can’t stand garlic, sleep in beds of earth vampires. I know, right?
I suspect that the reason for the change for the movie version might be to do with current trends in pop culture. In modern movies, vampires are more often dangerous but sexy romantic leads, whereas in I Am Legend they’re anything but. Director Francis Lawrence might have made the vampire-zombie swap because, nowadays, zombies pose more of a threat, create more spine-chilling fear than vampires do.
Having said that, it’s was really interesting to read some pre-Twilight vampire fiction. In Matheson’s novel the vampires are terrifying precisely because they keep some of their humanity, unlike the almost completely animalistic zombies of the film. They call out to the main character, Robert Neville – holed up alone in his boarded up house during a vampire apocalypse – asking him to come outside and join them. The women dance lewdly in front of his windows, knowing the effect they have on him, and he even has a particular nemesis in his erstwhile-human neighbour, Ben Cortman.
I loved the amateur science in this book. Neville’s life consists of surviving day to day – finding food, keeping his generator running, etc – but he also has time to collect books about germs and viruses. From this he works out some pretty interesting theories behind each of the legendary ‘symptoms’ of being a vampire, and how the world’s current plague relates back to the weather-affecting bombs that triggered it all.
Neville is a great, complex character and certainly an anti-hero: he drinks, he is prone to acts of sudden violence, and he is sexually tempted by the vampiric women who parade themselves in front of him every night. His struggle to overcome his more, shall we say, base needs is one of the most interesting elements in the book (and certainly not one that was touched on in the Hollywood movie).
I found I Am Legend to be fascinating, as much for its plot and characterisation (and the mind-bending final pages) as for the comparison it provides to the film. I think both book and movie can be viewed as two entirely separate entities, so it’s worth trying both.
“All these books, he thought, the residue of a planet’s intellect, the scrapings of futile minds, the leftovers, the pot pourri of artifacts that had no power to save men from perishing.”
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.