I Am Legend
I discovered this book in a roundabout way -- I saw the movie version of it first. The 1971 movie, "The Omega Man" stars Charlton Heston and actually, it's not all that good.
So, why mention it?
I loved the basic story -- just not its execution in the movie. In the movie, Robert Neville is the last living man on earth who must defend himself against the horde of zombies who are out for his blood. (Hey, I was a teenager when I saw it.) Survival books and apocalypse movies have always fascinated me. A small part of me would want to live after a nuclear war and face the struggle for survival. The other "saner" part would stand on my rooftop and watch the missiles coming down.
So, what does this have to do with "I Am Legend?"
A few years later I read, in a sci-fi magazine, that "Omega Man" was based on a novel called I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. I went to my favorite used bookstore and picked up a copy of Legend for a $1.50. (Now, I am the proud owner of this brand new beautiful version from TOR.)
I never heard of Matheson but his peers seemed to love him. "I think the author who influenced me the most as a writer was Richard Matheson. Books like "I Am Legend" were an inspiration to me," wrote Stephen King. As a teenager, I loved King and didn't think he would steer me wrong.
In the novel, Robert Neville is still defending his life but this time the zombies are vampires. A mutated strain of a virus used in germ warfare is what turns the whole world into vampires -- all except Neville.
The thrust of the book is how Neville copes with being the last man on Earth. He goes through serious bouts of depression -- especially when he listens to the taunts of the vampires nightly from within his fortified house. He has no companionship of any kind -- not even a dog. He drinks heavily and constantly laments the passing of his wife and daughter who fell victim to the vampire plague. There is even one harrowing scene where Neville's wife comes back from the dead and knocks on his door.
In order to keep his sanity and protect himself, Neville attacks the vampire problem in a scientific way. He is no scientist so it takes him years to come up with the answers he searches. He tests the myths we all know about vampires.
Garlic drives them away, but why? It has to do with the smell.
Crosses work, but not on all the vampires.
He uses psychology to solve this problem. Why would a vampire who was a Jew when he was alive fear a cross? Neville needs to test his theory, so he corrals a Jewish vampire named Ben Cortman who was a friend and neighbor before the plague. Now he is Neville's nemesis who torments him nightly. Neville shows Ben the cross and Ben laughs -- then Neville shows him the Talmud and he recoils in terror.
For the next few years Neville continues down the list: wooden stake, sunlight, soil, and running water. He uses what he learns to kill the vampires during the day, while they sleep. Over the years he kills thousands of them. At first these killings eat away at him but slowly they turn into an emotionless daily ritual.
These are the sections I found the most fascinating. Too often authors play with the vampire legend and they don't explain why something doesn't work. Matheson takes the time to craft a reason why some myths work and some don't. He makes it sound so plausible that I could almost believe vampires exist -- and now I even know what to do when I meet up with a Jewish one.
"I Am Legend" is written from Neville's point of view -- you only see the vampires through his eyes. To him they are inhuman, mindless monsters that must be destroyed. But -- like many science fiction stories, there is a surprise ending -- a pretty good one at that.
"I Am Legend" is only the first story in this novella -- there are 10 more horror short stories written by Matheson that follow. These stories range from killer dolls to funerals for the undead. I usually don't like short stories but I found myself reading all of them with delight. Now, thanks to Matheson and, recently, Harlan Ellison, I have a newfound love of short stories.
So, celebrate the 100th anniversary of Dracula with Matheson's unique twist on the vampire lore.
(Written for www.bookreporter.com)