I Am Legend by Richard Matheson unites horror with science fiction as successfully as the Alien franchise did on the big screen. It's been adapted for films, too, on a number of occasions since its publication way back in 1954.
The most recent version is the 2007 blockbuster directed by Frances Lawrence that starred Will Smith in the lead role as Robert Neville. The fact that I Am Legend was Richard Matheson's first science fiction novel simply makes it all the more impressive as an achievement.
Robert Neville is the sole survivor of an outbreak that has turned everyone else on Earth into vampires. He's spent years researching possible cures for the disease and is now attempting to befriend a stray dog that also appears to have escaped the disease.
The rest of the time he's watching out for the vampires, more certain with every passing day that those infected with the virus are coming for him. Every night, he barricades himself in, becoming increasingly paranoid as the bunker mentality sinks in.
There were plenty of moments when I felt as if the hero of I Am Legend might be better off as a vampire along with all the rest, rather than struggling along alone and perpetually in danger. In that sense, this novel could be thought of as an exploration of the loneliness of asserting an individualist identity when faced by a united hostility from the rest of the world. Naturally, this takes its toll on Robert.
Notwithstanding the futurism of what was once Los Angeles, the virus produces symptoms that are recognisably those of a vampire. One of the most satisfying aspects of I Am Legend is the way that Richard Matheson meets the reader's expectations of what a modern global vampire outbreak would look like, utilising many of the traditional vampire features but carefully naturalising them within our world of science and medical knowledge.
Setting them in a dystopian future where order has broken down completely gives further urgency to Robert's search for a cure if mankind is to salvage anything of itself from the collapse that has already taken place.
Both horror and dystopia genres had well-established boundaries by 1954. Richard Matheson's inventiveness lay in part in the way he married them together and in part in the way that he brought out something new via the attention to medical research and the scientific origins of the vampire virus. Many vampire novels and stories since then have build upon this new direction.
I Am Legend had a surprisingly modern feel for something dating from the mid-Fifties, and it still reads well today more than sixty-five years later. The writing is very relaxed and low key. If you didn't know it was written that long ago, I don't think you'd be able to guess.
The lonely individualism and the anxiety it brings have become more prevalent not less in the decades that have passed since it was published, and in many ways I Am Legend is a novel of the new millennium rather than the second half of the twentieth century. In that sense, it is among one of the best science fiction novels I know.
Thank you for reading my review of I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. I'll be back on Friday. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my review of A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising by Raymond A Villareal here. Or you might like to take a look at my review of Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake here.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin here.