Matt's Reviews > I Am Legend

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
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really liked it
bookshelves: classic-novels, horror

I’m not much of what you might call a “vampire guy.” By which I mean both that I am not a vampire, or a guy who likes vampires or vampire-themed endeavors. Thus it stands to reason that I never would have read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend had not the wildcard of my book club chosen it as this month’s selection. Frankly, I was a little underwhelmed by the choice. The critical “blurbs” did not help matters along. Dean Koontz said it was the “most riveting vampire novel since Dracula,” which is great, except my last – and only – vampire novel was Dracula. Another blurb called it one of the “ten all-time best novels of vampirism.” If I loved vampires, this would be meaningful. But really, I’m vampire-neutral. Maybe even slightly vampire-negative. (I mean, with the whole Twilight thing). I wholly support zombies, however.

But really, I Am Legend isn’t strictly a vampire book. (At 170 pages, it barely achieves book status at all. It's really closer to a novella). Instead, it straddles genres, stubbornly refusing to be one thing or another. Perhaps this is the reason people keep trying to turn it into a satisfying film. It is a potent canvas ripe for many different kinds of tales.

The main storyline is pure apocalyptic fiction. The novel opens with our protagonist Robert Neville as the putative last man on Earth. It is 1976, which stands in for the future since this book was first published in 1954. There has been some sort of war/disease combo that is elliptically alluded to in a short flashback. The human race is either dead or turned into vampires (Or both? Are vampires undead? I suppose I could look this up...). The exception, of course, is Robert.

Woven into the end-of-days context is an old fashioned cast-away story, akin to Robinson Crusoe or The Swiss Family Robinson. I Am Legend begins well into the vampire apocalypse, introducing Robert as a man who has learned to survive. It takes us through a typical day: waking up; eating breakfast; making repairs to the house; leaving the house to kill sleeping vampires or pick up supplies; returning home; making dinner; listening to music; getting drunk; trying to ignore the vampires outside your house who are taunting you both verbally and – in the case of the female vampires – sexually. (Because anything having to do with vampires has to touch on the repression of sexual urges in some manner).

I Am Legend is also, and most fascinatingly, a grim kind of character study. Matheson makes a rather daring literary choice in not giving Robert anyone or anything to play off of. There is not another human to talk to. There is no pet. There is not even an inanimate object like Cast Away’s Wilson to act as a sort of muse. There is only Robert. He is an angry, bitter man, which is altogether understandable. He is also a high-functioning alcoholic. Also understandable. The novel's high points are a couple powerful sequences in which this hard, down-to-basics shell is peeled away to surprisingly moving effect. (If that ambiguous sentence leaves you scratching your head, I have succeeded).

One thing I found entirely missing, other than people, is any semblance of lightness or joy. Robert – who lives in the LA-area – never has any fun with his sanctified status as last living avatar of the human race. He doesn’t go into a museum, take all the famous artwork, and then use it to decorate his bedroom. He never goes to an adult bookstore and takes all the porn. I suppose this is closer to a realistic response to losing your family, friends, and the rest of the world. Still, we can all use a laugh now and then, right?

Matheson tells this story in the third-person limited. The point of view is strictly confined to Robert and what he is seeing, feeling, thinking. The result is a constricted, almost claustrophobic atmosphere. Robert’s world is as small as it is empty. Matheson makes you feel the cramped confines of Robert’s fortress-house. He is also good at suggesting the creeping madness that comes along with that confinement.

I can’t say much more without venturing into spoiler territory, and I don’t want to do that. So instead of dancing around themes or vaguely hinting at plot-points for another 1,000 words (which is actually my first inclination), I'll just wrap this up. This is a quick, surprising little novel with a slammer of an ending.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
February 16, 2016 – Finished Reading
February 22, 2016 – Shelved
April 26, 2016 – Shelved as: classic-novels
April 26, 2016 – Shelved as: horror

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Louise (new)

Louise With you on those vampires!

Joanne Great review

message 3: by David (new)

David Eppenstein I have my guilty pleasures but vampires and zombies do not fit the bill at all and I have zero interest there. James Rollins, a writer I follow for entertainment, started a series with another author about vampire Catholic priests, as if the Church didn't have enough of an image problem these days. I read the opening installment of this series and no more. I agree with your take on this genre Matt. Thanks for the warning.

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