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I am Legend by Richard Matheson - Sci-Fi Classic Review

I am Legend
I love everything about this cover

As far as he knows, Robert Neville is the only human left alive. He's turned his house into a fortress against the living dead who crowd on his front lawn every night, and during the day, he goes out into the desolate world for the supplies he needs to go on surviving, slaughtering every sleeping monster he can find. Unsure why he must go on, he commits himself to learning all he can about the disease that took his wife, his daughter, and the rest of the human race.

You're probably wondering why a post-apocalyptic vampire novel qualifies as science-fiction, but Richard Matheson's I am Legend is an interesting thought experiment that seeks to find a rational, scientific explanation for vampirism before delivering a masterclass lesson in perspective. Though the story certainly keeps one foot planted firmly in horror, the other is in the realm of sci-fi, urging readers to use critical thinking and dismiss unsatisfying supernatural explanations. However, it's that ending that really seals it for me, a shocking and bitter reminder of the importance of humility.

Before reading it again for the purposes of this review, I'd only read I am Legend once, and that ending absolutely floored me at the time. On a second reading--knowing where the story is going--I was able to see all the ways the ending is heavily telegraphed, all the little doubts, concerns, and moral questions that Neville sets aside as he goes about his business. He is not a particularly heroic character to begin with--his deeply tragic backstory, heavy alcohol abuse, and emotional issues make him a very unpleasant protagonist at the start--but the reveal that his actions have defined him as the greatest monster of the newly emerging world is nevertheless a gut punch of a twist.

I am Legend
There's a touch of the gothic on this one

You could read the novel as an allegorical story of one man unable to move on as the world changes around him, or you could read it as a parable about how even the noblest of intentions can unwittingly lead a man down the path towards evil. For me, though, I look at it as a story about science, about a man who tries to use science to save the world but ultimately winds up getting executed by the mob for his efforts. That interpretation holds up better, because the new world at the end of the novel is perhaps even more bleak and depressing than the dead world at its start; this new human is just as violent and prejudicial as the old, and Neville's execution--though he probably doesn't live to experience it--is a more horrible fate than the old human deserves.

It's worth noting that the novel, published in the early fifties, is set in the near future of the mid-seventies, where a largely unexplored nuclear war has damaged the world and is partially responsible for spreading the vampire plague in frequent, post-devastation dust storms. Before the plague, life had gone on in a relatively normal way, just with people adjusting to the reality of the aforementioned dust. This is important, because it hints at the possibility that the vampires are a kind of karmic retribution for man's sins, just as Neville's death is the karmic result of his daily routine of murder and experimentation on beings who, unbeknownst to him, are still capable of intelligence and humanity.

This is a story about the wages of ignorance, and though science is offered up as a kind of hope, even it ultimately fails to solve the problems of violence, misunderstanding, and the human condition. By the end, Neville is able to understand nearly everything about the nature of the vampire curse and even the reasons why he's been hunted down and sentenced to death, but the only power he can exert over the mob that yearns for his blood is to take his own life. In that regard, this is still a horror novel through and through, a damning portrait of humanity that refuses to lighten up its bitter portrayal of a violent and unforgiving monster.

I am Legend
Richard Matheson meets Dante, apparently

It can still be an entertaining read, however. Matheson's style is gentle and his tone is darkly comedic. Even as the story threatens to devolve into the kind of relentless monotony of other post-apocalyptic novels like The Road or The Passage, Matheson is able to keep Neville an engaging, interesting character. Neville has a few upsetting setbacks along his journey--from the time his carelessness nearly costs him his sanctuary to the time his scientific frustrations lure him back to the bottle--but Matheson doesn't linger too long on the misery and hopelessness, choosing instead to move things along at a brisk pace. Indeed, as a novella at roughly 170 pages (in my paperback copy), this is a relatively short book.

The best parts are Neville's bouts of scientific curiosity, as he tries to shake off the superstitious nature of the vampires and come to grips with genuine explanations for their existence and behavior. I love how he collects knowledge from the library, figures out what kind of equipment he needs, and winds up learning more from his failures than he does his successes, all down-and-dirty realities of a fledgling naturalist. Matheson provides clever and somewhat plausible explanations for things like the need for blood, stakes through the heart, aversion to garlic, and even terror at the sight of crosses and mirrors, all while doing away with obviously fantastical things like vampires transforming into bats or being unable to step across flowing water. The scientific accuracy of the bacterium Neville dubs vampiris is a bit dubious, but it has a pretty sturdy veneer of believability that makes every question and every answer surprisingly satisfying.

The flashbacks to the early days of the plague are a bit extra disturbing at the moment, though, if I'm honest. I'm not sure if I'm subconsciously choosing books that remind me of the pandemic outside my own walls or if I'm just such an imaginative hypochondriac that anything I read will do it, but when Matheson is describing a society that is collapsing as stricter and stricter regulations come down from local officials to prevent the spread of a disease that probably originated from a bat and people stop respecting those regulations out of a misplaced sense of injustice, it's hard not to see the parallels. Thankfully, I don't think COVID-19 turns people into vampires. At least, not yet...

-e. magill 8/28/2020

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