I don’t like vampire novels much, so I wasn’t planning to read Richard Matheson’s classic vampire story I am Legend which was published in 1954, is also known by the title The Omega Man, and is, of course, the basis for the movie I am Legend.
But then I recently read and was enthralled by two other books by Matheson: The Incredible Shrinking Man and Steel and Other Stories. I realized that The Incredible Shrinking Man wasn’t really so much about a man who was losing his height as it was about a man who was losing his manhood. Likewise, the novella “Steel,” the titular piece of Steel and Other Stories and the premise for the movie Real Steal, isn’t so much about a fighting robot as it is about a man who, similar to the shrinking man, is fighting to keep his position in life. The psychological aspects of these stories fascinated me and I began to wonder if perhaps I am Legend wasn’t really about vampires after all.
As I suspected, it’s not. Well, on the surface it is. Robert Neville is the last human being on Earth. Everyone else has been infected with a virus that causes vampirism, but for some reason, Robert is immune. He spends his daytime hours securing his house, staking vampires, and trying to discover a cure for the virus. At night he hides indoors while the vampires, some who are his former acquaintances, try to break in. During the story there are flashbacks which show the gradual loss of Robert’s family and friends to vampirism.
I was fascinated by Robert’s preparations and daytime activities, and his studies to find the cause and cure for the virus. The thought, for example, of having free access to anything you want, including cars, jewelry, clothes, houses, art, scientific equipment, and every book in every bookstore and library in the world is exhilarating… until you realize that there’s nobody to share it with. All those things are almost meaningless outside of their social context.
So, this is Matheson’s gut-wrenching focus — what it means to be the last human on Earth, especially when you’re fighting for your life. We all know that humans are social creatures, but none of us has actually experienced a total lack of companionship. What would it mean to rule the entire world alone? And yet, as depressing as that is, why, when there’s nothing to live for, do we still cling to life so desperately? Matheson writes so powerfully about these emotions. I ached for Robert Neville and a few of Matheson’s scenes had me in tears.
The story is called I am Legend because Robert Neville gradually comes to realize that vampires, the creatures he thought were only legend, are real. Now, Robert Neville, the elusive human being who vampires fear, has become the legend.
I listened to Blackstone Audio’s version of I am Legend which is perfectly read by Robertson Dean. This is one I will listen to again. By the way, I am Legend is not a full-length novel, so some versions include additional stories in a collection called I am Legend and Other Stories.