So I just finished re-reading (actually, listening to the audio version of) Richard Matheson’s 1954 horror novella I Am Legend, and for the second time I came away with the same reaction: Good book, worth reading--but a horror classic, top 10 material as I’ve frequently seen it praised around the Web? I’m not so sure, Stephen King.
First, let me state the obligatory and not undeserved praise for I Am Legend:
- Matheson deserves a lot of credit for taking a creative, unique approach to the tired vampire genre.
- I am Legend helped to inspire the excellent zombie films of George Romero, and Romero’s recent successors. More reason for praise.
- Matheson was, I think, the first to tackle the scenario of the last man on earth. It's a nifty concept.
- In general, it’s a well-written, easy to read book.
Now that that’s out of the way, I'll admit that I found I Am Legend a bit disappointing. Yes, I know it's acknowleged as a classic in the genre. Yes, I realize it's been adapted for the screen no fewer than three times. But even though it may cost me my "horror cred," I Am Legend for me is a bit overrated.For starters, there’s not enough introspection and depth to the story. Robert Neville is the last man on Earth. Barricaded in his home and surrounded by vampires by night, he hunts the creatures by day while searching for a scientific answer to the virus that infected all of humanity. Such a tightly-focused, one character book has the opportunity to explore what it means to be a human, for example. It could have been a powerful statement against anti-conformity (Neville is the ultimate non-conformist, as he deliberately holds out against the living dead as the last living man on Earth).
But Matheson, in my opinion, opts for mere plot over substance, and I Am Legend is a lesser book for it. What we do get is a semi-interesting tale of survival and a man trying desperately to crack the code of the vampire virus, and not much else. It should have/could have been much more.
I’m the first one to praise short stories and lament their fading influence, but I Am Legend reads like a novella that should have been a novel. In short, it’s too short. There are some interesting, fertile concepts here that unfortunately aren’t played out. For example, I wanted to see more of the society being rebuilt by the “living” vampires who eventually exterminate their undead brethren. I would have liked more flashbacks to the collapse of society and scenes of the chaos of the virus spreading across the globe. Instead, Matheson provides only the briefest of glimpses. More than that, I wanted more introspection, more of what makes Neville tick. We’re given tantalizing glimpses of Neville’s humanity in his friendship with a dog, and in a budding romance with a female survivor. Again, these are unfortunately quite cursory. Matheson spends a lot of I Am Legend’s limited page count showing us the science of vampirism, a rather dry, unconvincing explanation I could have done without.
Another problem I have with the novella is that Matheson’s vampires aren’t particularly scary, and their behavior is inconsistent. They’re dangerous in hordes, sure, but how can we take seriously creatures that prove utterly incapable of breaking into a boarded-up house (if the garlic on the doors and windows are too much, couldn’t they knock a hole in its side)? Matheson also doesn’t sufficiently define their abilities and limitations, at least for my tastes. Are the undead vampires of I Am Legend possessed of mere animal intelligence? It’s unclear. At times, they are able to reason. For example, female vampires are capable of using crude sexual acts in attempt to seduce Neville into coming out of his home. Neville’s neighbor calls him by name, and in one scene anticipates Neville returning back home and circles back to wait for him. These are the actions of something more than animal. Yet the vampires are unable to come up with any plans more cunning than lobbing bricks at Neville’s house, and at times appear no more intelligent than Romero’s zombie hordes. Stoker's Count Dracula is scarier and far more capable than the bunch of them combined.
I’ll admit that the ending of I Am Legend is pretty brilliant. Matheson turns the vampire legend squarely on its ear with Neville’s realization that he, as the last man on Earth, has become a reviled creature of superstition and legend, personifying the myth of the ancient, blood-sucking vampire. He knows what it’s like to walk in the shoes of a hunted, misunderstood “monster,” and remains defiant until the end. I just wish the rest of the book measured up with its shattering conclusion.