Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend blends science fiction and horror into a pulp classic. The premise is simple: after a nuclear war, a mutation sweeps across the globe. It transforms every living human into a vampire, except one: Robert Neville. A clever inversion of the traditional vampire story in which one mysterious figure infects a healthy community with the physical and moral threat of vampirism, I Am Legend gives readers a world of continuous and almost certainly doomed combat. The one human left alive struggles to figure out if the plague can be reversed and how to stay alive as night after night hordes of vampires throw themselves at his house. I Am Legend alternates between direct action; science-fictional inquiries into the nature of this dark new world; and deeply human, if at times unbalanced, plunges into loneliness and despair.
Matheson’s novel has influenced both of its two parent genres. It laid the foundation for later science-fictional works that treat vampirism as a medical condition (as in the movie and comic series Blade), and it provided the foundation for literary works to explore the idea of extending vampirism throughout an entire society, such as in Kim Newman’s novel Anno Dracula. Finally, I Am Legend also showed that it was possible to return to older genre traditions thought dead and revitalize them, as authors Stephen King and Anne Rice did a generation later with the vampire myth.
The vividness of Matheson’s novel is matched by the symbolic fluidity of the vampires. They can represent anything a reader wants them to represent. As a result, the novel has been filmed three times, in three different decades. The first adaptation, The Last Man on Earth (1964), starred Vincent Price; the second, The Omega Man (1971), starred Charlton Heston; and the third, I Am Legend (2007), starred Will Smith.
When I Am Legend opens in January 1976, it is daytime. Robert Neville is checking his house to make sure it is ready for nightfall because that is when the vampires attack. He mends broken or vulnerable sections of the house and harvests garlic from his hothouse to use as a weapon against the vampires, then starts making stakes so he can kill them. That night they attack, which is a regular pattern.
When he is not preparing for an attack or responding to one, Robert Neville is playing his music loud enough to drown out the sound of the massive crowd of vampires outside his walls, or drinking to deaden the pain of being the only living human in a world of vampires.
Each day he has a regular routine of maintenance and vampire killing. As he gets supplies and gas, Neville occasionally sees things that remind him of how things were before the vampire plague hit. More often, though, he spends his time and energy trying to stay alive, trying to figure out why the vampire plague works as it does, and why wooden stakes work against them. Neville reviews the “literature” on vampires (such as the novel Dracula), assembling and reviewing a list of vampiric qualities that do or do not hold true. In his despair, Neville drinks heavily, sometimes getting drunk and at least once smashing a glass and cutting himself.
After a while, Neville begins more active testing of the vampires he finds inactive during the day. He drags them into the sun to see how and why sunlight affects them, and he takes one home to experiment on. However, as he is doing so, Neville realizes his watch has stopped, and he has to race home, hoping to beat the vampire mob to his house. He fights his way to his house and collapses inside.
It takes Neville awhile to repair the damage done to his house. As he does so, he remembers key moments in the past that led to the current situation. The first of these is when his wife, Virginia, first got sick with the plague that was sweeping the nation, and how she lost her appetite for food. By the time she died, the government had laws requiring that the dead be burned so that they could not return to life as vampires. However, Robert could not bring himself to burn his wife, so he tried sewing her into a sheet and burying her. She came back for him, and he had to dispose of her.
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