Genre: Horror, Post-Apocolyptic
Narrative Style: Third person, Chronological
Synopsis: Robert Neville is the last living human. The whole planet has succumbed to a bacteria that has caused them to become vampires. By day, Neville hunts for sleeping vampires to kill and fortifies his house. By night, he hides from the vampires on his street when they attack his house, desperate for his blood. How long can he carry on with his fight for survival?
Time on Shelf: This is a reread. I last read it when I was 18 – some thirty years ago. It was loaned to me by a friend that knew I liked horror. My reading matter then tended to be Stephen King, Dean Koontz and James Herbert. When it came up on the Kindle Daily Deal recently, I thought it was worth another look.
I like a book that sets out its stall straightaway. The opening sentence of I Am Legend – ‘On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when the sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back’ – lets you know exactly where you and Robert Neville stand. This is a man in peril. The peril is vampires. The novel starts off running and doesn’t really stop.
It seems that Neville is the last man standing. For some reason – he suggests a prior infection caught from a vampire bat – he is immune to the disease that has turned everyone else into blood sucking vampires and now he has to try to survive. Although they are very different stories, Neville’s plight reminded me a little of The Road by Cormac McCarthy. We only see Neville’s point of view. Flashbacks let us see what became of his wife and daughter and the mistakes he feels he made early in the plague. He was no one to talk to or to help him make decisions about the future. He is paranoid and easy to anger.
Understandably, it is often quite unpleasant inside Neville’s head. He is tortured by the female vampires outside who try and use their bodies to lure him out. At the beginning of the novel, he is driven to distraction by this display. He is unsure exactly what he might be capable of, his lust is so great. As timepasses, his psyche changes and instead of fighting blindly, he starts to think about where the plague came from and whether there might be a cure.
Matheson plays with traditional vampire lore. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire can be seen as a metaphor for the syphilis which was ravaging Europe at the time that Stoker was writing. In I Am Legend, vampirism is the disease, caused by a bacteria spread first by dust storms and mosquitos and then by the vampires themselves. Neville’s ideas about the bacteria lead him to working out why vampires cannot abide sunlight and why they disintegrate when they are staked. He also offers psychological conclusions as to why the cross is effective, making use of other religious symbolism if the vampire had originally been Jewish, for example.
As readers, we are close to Neville. We experience his highs and lows, when he rescues a dog, for example. We have faith in him and hope for his survival. At the end of the novel, Matheson shifts our perspective. It turns out the Neville is literally the last of his kind. The bacteria has mutated. People are more easily able to live with being a vampire. They are developing medicine to help with it. Neville has no future. He will become a representation of the past – a literal legend.
Even though I had read this before, the ending was still hard. It was like having the ground pulled out from under you. Obviously, we hope that Neville will somehow make it into a brave new world. It is both sad and satisfying when Neville realises that he will become a part of their lore, that this has been his role and now it is over.