You’re probably thinking, “‘I Am Legend’, Danger? Really? I read that in 7th grade!” Bear with me. I thought I read it too. Turns out, I either have book amnesia (a real thing, probably) or I was mistaken (likely). I’ve seen The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man, and I am Legend, sure. (I did not see The Asylum’s I Am Omega, so i’m not a total expert. forgive me) But Matheson’s story – the source material itself – was new to me. And it’s damn good. That’s probably why there have been so many film adaptations!
Robert Neville is just a regular guy fighting for survival in a post-plague world. He’s the only non-infected mammal as far as he can tell. He spends his days rooting out the vampire-like infected who hide from the sun in a comatose state. He spends his nights researching the affliction and trying to ignore the catcalls and taunts of the vampires milling around his fortified house trying to draw him out. (and he struggles to ignore the female vampires engaging in vile sexual displays on his lawn) He struggles with crushing loneliness and desperation and he dwells (at first) on the devastating emotional toll he endures after losing everyone in his life. Losing them, and then destroying them when they come back. In the early days, he drowns his depression in whiskey. As time passes, he falls into his routines and research, forging some normalcy from the madness. But his normalcy can’t last in a world that has abandoned the very concept of normal for a new existence.
I was floored by the overwhelming emotional impact of this story. Robert Neville is in a position utterly unimaginable to the reader. Despite this, Matheson crafts the story so well that he pushes the reader to (vicariously) live this unimaginable existence. It’s absurd. It’s impossible. But we believe it anyway. Neville is a supremely sympathetic character. His loneliness is palpable and soul-crushing. We are social animals after all. He doesn’t lose his mind, but he becomes singularly focused on explaining the plague. He posits theories about vampire legends of old (maybe they’re based on a real disease). He philosophizes about the vampires’ reactions to crosses and garlic. He teaches himself microbiology and medical science through gruelling, arduous study so that he can pinpoint what it was that caused the global pandemic. All of this makes sense. Our human minds cannot abide nonsense. Throughout human history we’ve assigned explanations to the seemingly unexplainable until a better explanation comes along. (people get sick because of sin, the sun and stars revolve around the Earth, the world is flat because it looks flat from where i’m standing, and so on) We would do the same in Neville’s position if we didn’t kill ourselves. When Neville does find glimmers of hope, the reader shares his overpowering optimism even as we dread that the rug will be pulled out from under him (us) again. This power – the power to affect the reader so deeply – is testament to Matheson’s consummate skill.
The Final Cut: “I Am Legend” is a superb horror story. It is a perfect depiction of humanity told through a single character. Matheson couches his story in his protagonist’s head so well that the reader cannot help being swept along in his emotional turmoil.