I Am Legend, the twenty-second book on My List, was an incredible read. I really enjoyed this one and am so happy to share my review here.
You might be familiar with this title if you’ve seen the 2007 movie starring Will Smith. I loved that film as well, so I was excited to read the book on which it was based. I was surprised (or perhaps shouldn’t have been so surprised) that the book is quite different. But I do wish that for the movie they had stuck closer to the book because it would have been that much richer character-wise.
Okay, let’s get into it.
I Am Legend takes place in a post-apocalyptic town and follows Robert Neville, the last man alive. Or at least, that’s what it seems like to him because he hasn’t seen another living human being for several years. Some sort of plague caused those infected to turn into vampire/zombie-like creatures, sleeping during the day and coming out only at night.
“They were all in front of his house, waiting…Now he saw them all turn their white faces at the sound of the motor. Some more of them came running out of the open garage and his teeth ground together in impotent fury. What a stupid, brainless way to die!”
Neville has fortified his house to prevent the vampires from getting in during the night, and during the day he goes about his routine of hanging garlic everywhere and planting stakes. It’s a lonely, menial existence and it takes a toll on Neville.
“The past had brought something else, though; pain at remembering. Every recalled word had been like a knife blade twisting in him. Old wounds had been reopened with every thought of her. He’d finally had to stop, eyes closed, fists clenched, trying desperately to accept the present on its own terms and not yearn with his very flesh for the past. But only enough drinks to stultify all introspection had managed to drive away the enervating sorrow that remembering brought.”
I hope I’m not making this story sound too boring. It’s extremely compelling, and even though it’s about one man, the plot does move forward because problems of course occur with the vampires.
But that’s all I’ll say about that!
I Am Legend is the first story on My List to feature vampires. Of course, vampire novels date back to the 1800s, including The Vampyre by John Polidori (1819), The Feast of Blood by James Malcom Rymer (1845), and Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897).
I love that the author, Richard Matheson, conceived of a zombie-like apocalypse except with vampires, or vampire-like beings. Neville has discovered that garlic repels them, as do wooden stakes, and that they only come out at night, so he is free to run errands around town during the day. He doesn’t know why they respond as vampires do, but throughout the course of the story he tries to find out.
“Her eyes suddenly on him, made him shudder. They way they glowed, they way her tongue licked across her red lips as if it were a separate life in her mouth. The way she flexed her body as if trying to move closer to him. A guttural rumbling filled her throat like the sound of a dog defending its bone…She strained against her bonds, her hands raking across the sides of the chair. No words from her, only a harsh, gasping succession of breaths. Her body writhed on the chair, her eyes burned into him.”
The other main theme of I Am Legend is extreme isolation. This is a topic that fascinates me, so I really enjoyed reading Matheson’s treatment of it. In the story, Robert Neville is all alone, day after day after day. The only interaction he has with other people are at night when the vampires come out. And it certainly takes a toll. Matheson’s narration of Neville’s thoughts and feelings are top notch here, really taking us into his psyche.
“The barking sound of his laugh in the silent morning air startled him. Good God, he thought, it’s been so long since I’ve laughed, I’ve forgotten how. It sounds like the cough of a sick hound. Well, that’s what I am, after all, isn’t it? he decided. A very sick dog.”
The narration weaves in and out of Neville’s mind, telling us what happens in the real world, from Neville’s point of view, but also telling us how Neville thinks.
“The dead walk about and I think nothing of it. The return of corpses has become trivial in import. How quickly one accepts the incredible if only one sees it enough!”
The picture we get is of a man desperately trying to keep it together and survive, even though he doesn’t really know what he’s surviving for, which is something Neville grapples with. And we watch as his emotions become more and more destabilized.
“He couldn’t stop laughing because it was more than laughter, it was release. Tears flooded down his cheeks. The glass in his hand shook so badly, the liquor spilled all over him and made him laugh harder. Then the glass fell thumping on the rug as his body jerked with spasms of uncontrollable amusement and the room was filled with his gasping, nerve-shattered laughter. Later, he cried.”
Neville teeters back and forth between reason and clarity, and fatalism and despair. It’s fascinating, and it really shows what a skilled writer Matheson was.
Strengths & Weaknesses
I absolutely love I Am Legend. The writing is among the best I’ve read so far on My List. I’ve read stories before that follow just one character around, and they were extremely boring. It’s hard to get a story like this right, but Matheson absolutely succeeds. He mixes the action and the introspection very well to produce a well-balanced story. I was gripped the whole time.
Hmm, I’m having a hard time thinking of a weakness for this novel because I so enjoyed it. Perhaps I’m just so biased right now that I can’t think of anything. But for me, this novel is a winner through and through.
I absolutely recommend I Am Legend as a must-read in the science fiction canon. The story is gripping and the writing is stellar. And according to the Wikipedia, it’s been adapted to the screen seven times!
If you get a chance to read it, don’t hesitate to share your thoughts with me in the comments below!
Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. New York: RosettaBooks LLC. E-Pub Edition. Rented on OverDrive through the Toronto Public Library.