As someone who doesn’t read a lot of sci-fi or fantasy, I had never heard of Richard Matheson before tackling “I am Legend” for the 501 Books list. So I was impressed to find Stephen King quoted on the back cover as saying that Matheson was a major influence on his writing.
The more sci-fi I read for this list, the more I realise that there were a handful of writers in the 1950s who created the genre as we know it today, and sure enough this book, first published in 1954, is amongst that list. You could assume that it would feel dated given all the changes in technology since that time, but this is a classic vampire/bio-hazard tale and in fact it feels distinctly modern. I haven’t seen the 2007 film based on the novel starring Will Smith, but I’ve been told it’s only loosely based on the book.
At a mere 178 pages long, the story, told with very few characters and a limited setting, paints a scary portrait of life for the hero Robert Neville. He’s the last man on Earth thanks to a plague which has turned everybody else into a vampire. His isolation and grief (his wife and daughter succumbed to the disease) are brilliantly protrayed and far from being dismal to read he has a strong sense of humour holding him together. I enjoyed when he, near hysterics, called for a policeman when he parked his car illegally in the deserted city where he lives.
He lives in the daytime only, patrolling in search of the undead to kill them. At night he’s the prey, so he barricades himself in his home and tries to ignore them and avoid insanity, drunkeness, and despair. As Matheson writes; “imprisoned on an island of night surrounded by oceans of death”.
When his solitary existance and quest for an explanation or cure for the disease is interrupted by first a dog and then a woman, Neville has to face tougher challenges.
The writing is excellent, the plotline intriquing and compelling. I’d recommend this book for any sci-fi or fantasy fan as well as anyone who likes a thought-provoking read. I really enjoyed it and am putting it in my Best of The Books category.
(read April 2012)