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I Am Legend
Reviewed by Kit O'Connell, © 2004

Format: Book
By:   Richard Matheson
Genre:   Horror
Review Date:   March 30, 2004
RevSF Rating:   9/10 (What Is This?)

Robert Neville is the last man on earth, an everyman in both literal and figurative truth. When a mysterious plague turns everyone around him into a vampire, he discovers as civilization decayed that he is one of few (or perhaps the only one) with the mysterious ability to withstand it. Even when bitten or injured by bloodsuckers, he does not die. Now by day he struggles to understand the new world around him, gather the supplies he needs, and drive a stake through as many infected hearts as possible. At night he holes himself up in his house; the physical protection of his walls are all that keep his former neighbors at bay, and he maintains his sanity through his electric generator, his booze, and his phonograph player.

In Richard Matheson's landmark 1954 novel I Am Legend, we follow three years of Neville's life after the end of the world. When RevolutionSF asked me to read this classic, I was excited. It would be my first time, and I wondered how well the story had aged in the 50 years since it remade the horror industry in its own image. I confess that for the first third of part one, I was a bit dubious. I think in retrospect that, because this story has influenced so much modern horror writing, some themes seemed too familiar; I simply assumed I knew where the story was going. Matheson, however, excels at projecting Neville's emotions, especially the loneliness, the paranoia, and the profound sense that the foundations of a person's life can be shattered again and again. Despite losing everyone he loves or cares for, somehow Neville goes on; in some ways his survival is worse than death, for what can the last man hope to do or accomplish? It was this intensely personal view that drew me into the novel and left my misgivings behind.

I Am Legend may also be one of the most effective uses of a scientific rationale for vampirism I have ever encountered. As Neville struggles to understand the monsters he fights, he uncovers a bacteriological cause of the vampire's condition that is quite convincing within the confines of the story. Matheson even manages to explain such seemingly supernatural occurrences as the fear of crosses from within the boundaries of fictional science. This is a double-edged sword, because by discovering that vampires suffer from a disease, it becomes harder to think of them as true monsters and not the ill and suffering, and the author uses this effectively.

Though clearly tinged with the particular fears of the Cold War, like the best episodes of The Twilight Zone (several of which Matheson wrote) the novel succeeds by evoking fears -- distrust of government, the seemingly unbridgeable gap between the sexes -- that are just as much a facet of modern life as they were when it was first written. In today's book market, few authors can hope to remain in print for 50 years, much less to remain as influential as I Am Legend.

More importantly, few can remain so readable. With years of reprinting, it should not be hard for a reader to find this novel at an affordable price (especially if you can put up with Charleton Heston's face on certain tie-ins). It is an experience that no fan of horror or science fiction reader with an interest in the supernatural should do without.

Kit O'Connell was a writer and poet from Austin, Tx. In 2008 he will rise from his grave to run for president.

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