Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > I Am Legend

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
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it was amazing

Richard Matheson's 1954 I Am Legend is a very enjoyable 5-star novel of what now we would call the zombie genre. Interestingly, though, only some of the humaniverous shamblers haunting the post-apocalyptic ruins of an American suburbia are actually the reanimated dead, with many being infected but living as blood-drinking vampires, so...tomato, tomahto. Yet either dead or living variety of vampire is more than able to ruin the post-dusk day of a traditional Homo sapiens.

Apparently, however, there may be only one "normal" human left: Robert Neville, ex-serviceman who had been stationed in Panama during the Third World War nuclear strikes that now seem to have caused insect mutations and "the dust storms" and "probably...a lot of things" (Nelson Doubleday hardcover, page 43). A former worker at "the plant" (page 51), Neville is an accomplished machinist and handyman with a well-equipped home shop (page 4). He also was husband of a dead wife and father of a dead child, and thus has that extra piece of backstory to explain his melancholic drinking binges.

The funny thing about those vampires, though--funny Hmm rather than funny Ha ha--is that they share so many attributes of the vampires of the old superstitious legends. Oh, they cannot turn into bats, of course, nor do they lack a reflection in a mirror, but so many other things tally up: "their staying inside by day, their avoidance of garlic, their death by stake, their reputed fear of crosses, their supposed dread of mirrors" (page 16). Apparently vampirism really had existed all along, Neville surmises, with the legends having coalesced around its formerly rare occurrence. Now, however, because of the way mutations are "[j]umping over dozens of small evolutionary steps" (page 43), vampirism is the rule rather than the exception, and the man who may be the last uninfected human on the planet will need both skill and luck to survive. But how long can such a solitary man survive anyway...?

Certainly Neville will do all he can to increase his odds. He has burned down the houses around his "to prevent them from jumping on his roof" (page 4), and while his windows are boarded up against rocks thrown in the night, from the generator in his garage he has electricity for his lights and his hi-fi and his movie projector and his air conditioners and his garbage disposal and his electric stove and his "giant freezer" (page 6) full of food. Behind a "high fence" he has "the hothouse and water tank" for growing garlic and other edibles, with netting overhead to intercept any "lob[bed]" missiles (page 3). He has an apparently smallish inventory of firearms, mainly "pistols," though "the submachine gun on his workbench" (page 141) definitely could help. And on that "long bench cover[ing] almost an entire wall" he has "a heavy band saw, an emery wheel, and a vise," with "haphazard racks of...tools" hanging on the wall above (page 4). He also has a lathe, which he uses to turn down dowels into the wooden stakes that during his frequent daylight hunts through unexplored buildings he hammers with his holster-toted mallet into the chests of comatose vampires...after which the now-completely-dead creatures--former men, women, and even children, too--are hauled away in his Willys station wagon to the huge burn pit dug by authorities back when there was still some authority left, five long months earlier.

This is a novel of prepperism, therefore, and yet also science and psychology as well. Neville is a relentless practical fixer-up-er, and yet he also prowls through the Los Angeles Public Library for texts from which he can learn physiology and bacteriology, and he eventually scrounges a very good microscope and and glassware and chemicals, and he conducts experiments to try to find the pathogen that is causing vampirism. If he can identify the organism he dubs "vampiris" (page 71), after all, then perhaps he can find a substance that will kill it, thus killing the formerly human hosts that now threaten him nightly.

Prep-wise, though, I confess that sometimes the precariousness of everything scares me more than it seems to do to Neville. What if the generator fails, for example, really fails, and can't be repaired? Will he cook with fire then, and after his frozen food rots, will he eat only his cache of canned goods, or perhaps supplement it with some sort or trapping or hunting? Or water-- It apparently comes through the city pipes, gravity-driven from old municipal water tower or tank at a higher level than that of the house...yet what if the pipe breaks, or the city tank fails? How much water does Neville have stored? Or where will he scrounge it during the safe daylight hours? I would have like to see at least a brief nod toward such things.

And as for the slim book's psychological content, some is good, while some--as with some of the prepping iffiness above--is frustrating or even downright puzzling. Neville's remembrances of his wife, for example, are decently rendered and help explain his tormented state. Yet Neville's occasional self-destructive little episodes of angrily knocking objects over, throwing whisky tumblers or even breaking them by hand he-man-wise, pounding his fists into the walls, or purposefully drinking himself into a stupor are annoying at best; I suppose real humans indeed do do such things, but that definitely ain't the way to stay alive. Every now and then he even compares the moral standings of humans and vampires, which, though a little sarcastic sometimes, is interesting. As he notes, after all, humans even before this plague were not the most flawless and inoffensive of creatures...

But Neville's helpless sexual longings... Well, yes, being the last man alive indeed would be difficult, sexually, but would it really be "the women [vampires] who ma[k]e it so difficult...the women posing like lewd puppets in the night on the possibility that he'd see them and might decide to come out" (page 8)? Reallllllllly? I mean, yes, amid "the white-faced men prowling around his house, looking ceaselessly for a way to get in at him" (page 10) in the night--but, fortunately for Neville, not having the gumption or inventiveness of the living to be able to figure out how--it might make sense that among them are "women who ha[ve] seen him and ha[ve] started striking vile postures in order to entice him out of the house" (page 8). And yet a man like Neville, who had done military service overseas without a wife and who otherwise is so very skilled with his hands, probably could figure out some way to take the edge off his sexual frustrations, couldn't he...? Oh, I know a novel from 1954 isn't going to talk about that--it isn't James Joyce's Ulysses, after all--but the hyping up of the protagonist's physical agony and his longing, such that he looks and he lusts, such that it is always the females he experiments upon rather than the males (page 48), and such that in a stagy inner dialogue he explains to himself that of course he is "not going to rape the woman" (page 48), just runs a tad much counter to reality.

Despite a few items that occasionally grate, though, Richard Matheson's swift little I Am Legend is an exciting, scaring, and thought-provoking read. And about the somewhat enigmatic, almost self-aggrandizing title-- For to whom, after all, is Neville a legend? Well...for the surprising yet grimly satisfying answer, Matheson will make us wait until the very end.

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Reading Progress

August 15, 2020 – Started Reading
August 15, 2020 – Finished Reading
August 16, 2020 – Shelved

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