I Am Legend by Richard Matheson is arguably one of the most influential science fiction and horror books of the 20th Century. Even so, despite the awards and recognition it’s received, it often seems to get treated like a footnote when compared to the giants of genre fiction, probably because a lot of the ideas it popularised don’t always get traced back to it. But as far as I can tell, it’s one of the earliest examples of the kind of zombie post-apocalypse stories that people enjoy today.
I think one of the reasons it tends to get forgotten is because of the terrible movie versions that have been produced over the years. Chances are, if you’re only vaguely familiar with the title I Am Legend then you’re picturing that Will Smith atrocity that was released back in 2007, but that was only the latest in a long line of disappointing adaptations. The Omega Man made in 1971 was a fun b-movie take on the source material, but it hardly stayed true to the book, and while The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price is practically a word for word copy of the novel that was actually co-written by Matheson, it mostly just demonstrates how so much of what makes the book special goes beyond a list of tropes that can be copied over to another format, even by the original author himself.
I Am Legend is essentially set at the end of the world. If you saw my video on J.G. Ballard, then you’ll already know that I’m a big fan of the psychological aspect of post apocalyptic stories. But while Ballard might have gone on to become one of the best writers to explore this kind of introspective reaction to the apocalypse, it’s actually something Richard Matheson was playing with long before his british contemporary got there.
The character at the centre of I Am Legend is named Robert Neville. At the beginning of the story he’s completely alone. A virus has mutated most of the world’s population into a race of vampires who are set on either killing him or changing him into one of them. This all plays out in the suburban sprawl of Los Angeles, where he hunkers down in a house and only explores the abandoned city during the day when a horse of zombie vampires that want nothing more than to see him dead are all asleep. Obviously isolation is a major part of the book. The desperation and loneliness of Robert is felt throughout, but at no point does the repetitive slog he’s forced to live through ever become a bore to read. In fact, at a slim one-hundred sixty pages the book ticks along at a steady pace but also manages to express a deeply felt undercurrent of angst. Over and over again it consistently introduces new reasons to continue turning the page. What’s more, even though a lot of the ideas that made it interesting in the first place have been borrowed by everything from the mindless zombie mob of Night of the Living Dead to the virus that causes an outbreak in 28 Days Later, there’s still an incredible amount of cool stuff that you won’t have read anywhere else.
That said, I think the fact that some of the ideas in the story don’t really follow modern tropes is probably another reason it gets overlooked. The creatures in I Am Legend aren’t exactly your classic style of vampires, but they aren’t really zombies either. Both of these monster outbreaks have been kind of codified in modern popular culture to the extent that zombies, in particular, are the ones that usually come in hordes and vampires have mostly remained isolated figures that attack one person at a time. I’m sure there are plenty of books and comics that contradict this set of rules, but it remains true that among the general population its a pretty clear divide. In this regard, the creatures in I Am Legend exist in a world in between two tropes. They’re clearly not zombies because they’re able to speak and are hard at world-building a new society, but still, they do seem to act as one giant unruly mob, undefeatable because of their sheer amount numbers and a pretty obvious metaphor for the kind of suburban malaise you associate more so with zombie stories than any other genre. On top of this, much of the book reads more like a science fiction story than a horror novel. In his desperation to save the world, Robert has become a scientist of sorts who struggles to defeat the virus and Matheson very much leans toward the scientific method when it comes to describing what exactly drives the spread of the vampire virus. It’s very clever, but not particularly horror-oriented at times and at the end of it all, it becomes a bit of a watered-down sales pitch when you try and get the general public on board. The book just sounds like it’s caught between two genres and worse still, it often gets overshadowed by its successors that have separated out the traits of Matheson’s creation into two respective monster genres.
Of course, all of these elements which might result in the book being a bit of an underappreciated oddity in modern pop culture are also what people seem to love about it when they actually give it a chance. There’s plenty of books I’ve recommended to friends over the years, but more so than any other, this is the one that always generates the most surprise at just how good it is. It would be getting into heavy spoiler territory to say exactly why there’s a good chance you’d have the same experience with it as my friends have had. But, to put it simply, it gets into a couple of interesting ideas of what it means to be human and explores them in a really entertaining way. It’s by no means a work of high philosophy, but if you like your existential stories to be interspersed with interesting monsters, compelling plots twists and a heavy dose of dread, then this is the book for you. It packages together some really cool science fiction and horror elements that you might think you’re already familiar with but still manages to hit you with them in a lot of unexpected ways.
You know, Richard Matheson actually contributed some of the better episodes to the original Twilight Zone series. A whole host of his books became the source material for a ton of b-movies back in the day. And he adapted one of his own stories into the screenplay for Stephen Spielberg’s Duel. So all of this is to say, the man knows how to entertain.