Please note that this review contains SPOILERS.
Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is a groundbreaking novel for its time (1954). It is the granddaddy of at least three different popular fiction (sub-) genres, zombie, post-apocalyptic and medical/science thriller. Mr. Matheson’s description of the ‘vampire bacillus’ echoes modern thinking on the complex behavior of parasites, as illustrated in books such as Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex (2000). The scientific explanation of vampirism means that I Am Legend can be read as science fiction, and such a reading would be perfectly legitimate. What makes this book horror is the protagonist’s utter helplessness, self-loathing and psychic ennui.
Mr. Matheson does many things well in I Am Legend, which is a fast read. I have mixed feelings about his writing style. He uses a lot of action verbs but is a bit sparse on description for my personal tastes. This book had more than enough material to engage me, but I recall reading his novel Stir of Echoes (1958) in about a half-hour and thinking it was written for a sixth grader.
I am assuming leaving brand names off everything was a conscious choice on the author’s part, since the action takes place in the far-flung year of 1978. This was a good choice, since one of the things that makes old science fiction so dated is its use of awful futuristic jargon (the vidscreen!). Mr. Matheson does make a reference to Oliver Hardy, a comedian many people today have probably never heard of.
The other thing Matheson does well as a writer is anticipate questions that might arise in his reader’s mind and ask them. Such as: why doesn’t Robert kill himself? Why are Robert’s ‘experiments’ always on women? Why don’t the vampires burn his house down? Note that Matheson never answers these questions, but in a way raising them is enough to satisfy the reader. It’s a great writers’ trick.
The other trick Matheson pulls off involves his protagonist. Robert Neville is not a likable man. Robert Neville is an unpleasant man. It’s a good thing I Am Legend is a short novel, because it would be tough spending a long novel in Mr. Neville’s company. Yes, he’s been through hell. Yes, the trauma of his wife rising from the dead might have unhinged him.
Still: I was struck by the fact that everything Robert touches dies, his wife (twice), his daughter, the dog. He has violent, misogynistic thoughts and impulses towards women which he acts out, at one point dragging a woman around by her hair. Many of his actions make no sense. He kills an infected woman by leaving her in the sun, and then decides to get his car and go back for her to see if she reanimates, seemingly unaware that he can replicate his experiment at any time without risking the sun setting.
Most tellingly, Mr. Neville is a murderer. Many of the vampires he kills are still alive. They are infected, but they are still living beings. Mr. Neville knows but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t wonder how they can still be alive, because he goes through life in a state of ignorance. Yes, he discovers the source of the vampire plague – which anyone with access to a microscope could do – but he doesn’t come close to discovering a cure. The society that arises post-humanity is brutal, but it is a society that he helped create. Mr. Neville did it unknowingly, but since he spends the entire book unaware of the consequences of his own actions that comes as no surprise. The fact that I read and enjoyed a book with such an unlikable protagonist is testimony to Mr. Matheson’s skills as a writer.
You may ask, could I do any better in Robert Neville’s situation? I would have killed myself, and to me the question as to why the protagonist doesn’t end his own life is one of the biggest mysteries of I Am Legend. Mr. Neville has nothing left to live for, clinging to alcohol, ancient records and his enmity with Ben Cortman, whom he seems to view as an old friend by the book’s end.
Did I enjoy Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend? Yes, I admired this book, but must confess to enjoying the author’s short stories more than his novels. To me, Mr. Matheson’s style seems better suited to short fiction. Still, while reading I Am Legend I saw echoes of Richard Matheson in genre greats Stephen King, Michael Crichton and George Romero. He is legend, indeed!
5 Replies to “Book Review: Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend”
Great review! Keep them coming!
Great review. Neville is quite the bastard, more so than I had picked up on. I won’t try to justify his actions, because as you pointed out, when listed out they’re pretty terrible. I have a background in criminal justice though, and why no means an expert, I am familiar with what incarceration and isolation do to the human psyche. It doesn’t mean that I would ever want to be left alone with someone who underwent these conditions (and I’ll admit I was worried what was going to happen when he chased Ruth down), but it made sense to me why he was devolving as a person. From the brief glimpses in his past it can be assumed he wasn’t always such a terrible person…although I did wish Matheson had toned down just how horny Neville was throughout the book. It definitely added to his rapey vibes and hampered my sympathy for the character.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to view any of his short stories. My Kindle edition for a buck was too much of a deal to pass up, but it did not come with any short stories. From my edition of the novel I can agree that Matheson’s writing style is probably better suited for short stories. I mentioned before how I found it aggravating that he kept referring to Robert Neville by first and last name, and he does a similar thing in “The Funeral”. Fortunately, “The Funeral” is much shorter, so it wasn’t near as noticeable. I probably wouldn’t have even picked up on it had I not read I am Legend first. I’m not sure if a book of this length would even be classified as novel today, which is probably why so many editions include selection of Matheson’s short stories.
Thank you for responding! I think Matheson did a great job with Neville’s character. I can certainly empathize with what he’s going through. I think Matheson added all those negative character traits to foreshadow the twist at the book’s end. He also ends certain scenes early, leaving what happened to the reader’s imagination, probably because this book was published in 1954. If I Am Legend was published today, I’m sure it would be a very different book.
Hi George, I didn’t really think about how misogynistic Neville was until you pointed it out. I hope that’s a testament to my lack of attention, and not my acclimation to this type of person. I assumed his sexual desires kept arising not by any fault of his, but because of the naked women dancing in front of him. There were, I’ll admit, moments when I rolled my eyes, but I didn’t think anything was out of proportion, considering the circumstances. I think it is interesting that you mention the questions that Matheson raises, without answering them. It was something that I also noticed. At the end of the novel I had questions, but I didn’t think that they were “plotholes” the way I would in other novels, and I think that you hit the nail right on the head. By raising the questions, I think Matheson is able to pacify the reader’s curiosity. This is something I struggle with in my own writing, and I appreciate your analysis of this question because I think it sort of gave me a solution, or at least a direction toward a solution. Thank you!
Thank you for commenting! I recall wondering why the vampires just didn’t burn Neville’s house down, and a few pages later Neville was wondering the same thing. After that, I just assumed the vampires didn’t like fire. It’s a great way to get away with not answering questions.