Matheson's Legendary "I Am Legend"

posted Jul 6, 2013, 6:54 AM by Martin Roy Hill   [ updated Aug 4, 2015, 8:12 PM ]

I am Legend and Other Stories by Richard MathesonI read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend back in – well, I think it was high school. Over the decades, I have seen at least two of the three movies based on this book, including the most recent movie starring Will Smith. Other than the movie adaptions, the only details I remembered about the book was the thought I had as I finished the last chapter: “That was a damn fine novel.”

Published in 1954, Legend is the story of Robert Neville who, for some reason, has survived an epidemic that turns humans into either living or dead vampires. Alone, he struggles to survive, haunting the streets of a post-nuclear conflict Los Angeles by day, and seeking refuge in his fortified home by night from the undead who demand his death. Despite the opposition being vampires, Legend is considered the granddaddy of the zombie genre.

Legend, however, is more than an horror story. It is an exploration of the psychology of a man who survives years alone, not on a deserted island like Robinson Crusoe, but in the middle of a major city that has become the domain of the night dwellers. Matheson, who died within days of my starting this book in June 2013, always rejected the label of horror writer. He simply used the genre he needed to tell the story he wanted to tell stories about the human condition.

If all you’ve seen is the most recent Hollywood version of this book, you know little of the book. In the end, Neville comes to realize the infection has changed humanity – evolved humanity – and that he is, like so many monsters from humanity’s past, has become a legend to the new generation of people.

This is a sci-fi classic that will live forever.

But that’s not the end of this book. Because Legend is a relatively short novel, it also includes several short stories, some of which were later adapted for TV sci-fi shows. The best, in my opinion, were “Mad House,” in which a writer is destroyed by his uncontrollable anger over his life's failures, and the riveting “The Shadow Dance,” in which a medical doctor has to admit there is more to human illness than physical science can explain.

A talent like Richard Matheson will be missed.

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