Updated on April 5, 2018
53. ‘I Am Legend’ by Richard Matheson
Earlier this month I went back to the sci-fi book club in Bath, and this time we were reading a classic: Richard Matheson’s vampire novel, I Am Legend. I have read this book before, in 2015, so it was interesting to return to it and see if I still enjoyed it. Happily, I did!
[Warning: There are some plot spoilers in this review.]
Robert Neville is, as far as he knows, the last human on earth. He lives in a boarded-up house and when night falls he locks himself inside with classical music and alcohol, and grits his teeth as the others rage outside. They were once humans, but having been infected by some kind of virus (to which Neville is immune) they have all become vampires – fearful of crosses, disgusted by garlic, killable with wooden stakes – and each night they beg him to come outside and join them. Instead, Neville picks them off one by one during the day and desperately tries to find a scientific explanation, and perhaps a cure.
In case you haven’t read the book but have seen the Will Smith film (yes, I love it too), the original I Am Legend is indeed about vampires rather than zombies. Although the creatures in the book also come out at night and have a taste for human blood, they are not nearly as alien looking as in the movie. In fact, this is one of the major problems for the protagonist, Robert Neville, who struggles to avoid looking at the attractive vampire women, who regularly try to tempt him out of his fortress-like house by exposing themselves on his front lawn. Sex runs as an undercurrent throughout this book, and I had forgotten about Neville’s sometimes impossible struggle to control his urges.
The women, as with many classic sci-fi novels, are my main issue with I Am Legend. For instance, when Neville goes to the library he makes a fairly groundless assumption that the librarian who closed it up was a) a woman and b) a virgin. Stereotype much? Also, when Neville eventually meets Ruth (a mysterious woman he finds wandering around outside), he’s pretty quick to believe that she doesn’t know anything about the vampires, despite having survived in this post-apocalyptic world for years. I mean, how stupid does he think she is? Of course, this says more about Neville than it does about Ruth, who later turns out to be far more knowledgeable and powerful than he had imagined. In the end she is a satisfyingly complex character, even if she does suffer from a touch of ‘insta-love’.
However, these criticisms make it seem like I didn’t enjoy the book, and I certainly did. Matheson moves the story at an incredible pace, so even when there are plot holes or flimsy science, you don’t stick around long enough to overthink it. (Plus, of course, Neville is the ultimate unreliable narrator: an alcoholic, desperately alone, losing the grip on his sanity, so it’s hardly surprising that his scientific theories don’t hang together.) There are some fantastically written scenes which really get your heart racing, such as when his watch breaks and he has to drive at breakneck speed across town to get home before nightfall.
And then there’s the ending. Unpredictable yet somehow inevitable, it’s the classic ‘who’s the real monster?’ question but probably done best. The vampires are not what Neville thought they were, and he himself is not who he thought he was, so the reader is left wondering who to root for. Be warned: your allegiances might change.
This is a timeless novel that every sci-fi fan should read. It moves at a really good pace and covers some complex themes in its 160 pages. I’d highly recommend this if you want a quick scare that will also make you think.
“Morality, after all, had fallen with society. He was his own ethic.”
Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.