I Am Legend by Richard Matheson- A forerunner of The Walking Dead
Many notable horror authors rank Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend as one of their top ten horror novels of all time. However, if you crave a lot of bloodletting in your horror stories like Jack Ketchum’s Off Season or Jack Kilborn’s Afraid, this tale may disappoint since Robert Neville is the only human on earth the vampires can tap for blood.
Many consider this book the forerunner and inspiration for George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the currently popular The Walking Dead, and all the other such zombie tales where hordes of the undead attack the living in a world gone mad.
Unlike some other horror stories where the degree of excessive acts of depravity seem almost cartoonish like the relentless pain and suffering inflicted on Wile E. Coyote by the Road Runner, Matheson keeps his story completely somber, dark, and as serious as a heart attack throughout. If there is anything about it that bothered me as I turned the pages, it was the stark absence of a sense of humor commonly found in the works of some other horror writers like Stephen King, who seem to find a degree of levity in the story no matter how much blood is splattering. This book reminds me of H. P. Lovecraft in its morbidity.
The story opens with Robert Neville, the last real man on earth, living in a world where a mysterious virus has not only killed all other human life, but it has caused the dead to reanimate with the sole intent of drinking the blood of the living. Neville has survived unscathed because he was once bitten by a vampire bat while traveling in Central America. Neville tries desperately to cope with the loneliness and horror of the current times, but he continually sinks in and out of depression, drunkenness, and thoughts of suicide after his wife and daughter succumbed to the disease, and he had to deal with their journey into the world of the undead.
Neville is a lonely soul who longs for the company of another human being in his personal fortress besieged by vampires who thirst for his blood nightly. Neville has to pump up the volume when the sun goes down to drown out the incessant cries of the blood suckers, led by his former friend and neighbor, who keep calling his name all through the night for him to give up and let them drink the last true blood on earth. It makes you wonder what they will do at night once Neville is out of the picture.
During the day, Neville travels about the remains of a desolate Los Angeles sightseeing, searching for supplies and equipment to restock his shelves, but mostly, to find dormant monsters while they sleep and drive a stake through their hearts. Afterward, he is faced with the unpleasant task of carting the smelly double-dead corpses across town to a huge crater where he dumps and burns them.
Rather than rehashing the familiar vampire legends found in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Matheson adds a more scientific spin on vampirism. In his novel, his protagonist researches and analyzes everything he can find about the black death of the middle-ages and the similarities to the current plague. He also conducts experiments with blood samples of the living dead, and tries to understand how and why garlic, crosses, sunlight, holy water, and stakes through the heart affect them.
After the beginning of the book has demoralized the reader in a hopeless world where the last human is on a collision course to oblivion in one grisly form or another, Matheson finally lifts the reader’s spirit with Neville finding and, after exhibiting the patience of Job, befriending an old dog. The encounter is only a brief flicker of light at the end of a very dark tunnel, but it at least presents the possibility that things can improve no matter how black the world around him becomes. Afterward, his spirit and ours is lifted again when Neville discovers a woman basking in the midday sun who, consequently, must not be a vampire. His undying hope that he could actually have a lasting relationship with another human like himself catapults him from the doldrums of depression to contemplating the possible renewal of the human race with a serum created from his own and possibly the woman’s non-contaminated blood.
Richard Matheson is a giant in the annals of horror in print, on TV, and on the big screen, This is his most notable work. Need I say more?
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