Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend paints a wonderful picture of isolated desperation. We know it’s not going to end well for Robert Neville but I found myself glued to the page in morbid fascination. The story must have worked for others too since we’ve seen this basic structure in countless zombie movies and television shows.
I’m hesitant to call this a vampire novel even though it is clearly filled with the garlic fearing undead. When I think of a vampire the iconic Dracula comes to mind. He’s an older, wealthy man who lives in a mansion and preys on the common folk, reflecting our late 1800’s fear of the unfettered industrialist. He is charming and more than once I found myself rooting for him (especially during the film when Dracula is played by Gary Oldman). The vampires in this book however are nothing like their suave predecessor. They are mindless brutes who chuck bricks at houses and lack everything in the mental department except for a basic survival instinct.
I found it odd that instead of the lone vampire setup we are all familiar with, the ones in this novel were basically stuffed into the zombie mold. As I read, I wondered why this was happening? Why not just call them zombies and be done with it?
I’m guessing Matheson wrote this one from the ending backwards. He knew he needed two types of monsters: one mindless all-the-way dead and another almost-dead who he could then mutate into another sub-species of human, a thinking vampire that could repopulate the world. I found it funny that by the end the new vampires had learned to control their bloodlust by taking meds, something that felt very human.
Because of this brilliant move it begs us to consider the deeper implications of what makes someone or something a monster? We clearly have an “us” and “them” mentality working, reflecting the need we all have to label an outsider as the “other” so we can eliminate them from society. We see both Robert Neville and the new society at the end do this. He labels them as evil to uphold the standards he grew up with, and they label him in return because of the danger he poses. By the end though, I did wonder if Robert Neville was responsible for the creation of the vampire society through fear? It seems likely since he is a driving force behind their organization.
And that got me wondering if fear is what is holding us together now? I’m guessing that on a primitive level it has to be true. We evolved as a tribal species and even though we all have the Internet it seems that some impulses are hard to shake. Most of us know, deep down, that we cannot survive alone and this novel shines a wonderful light on that fear.