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.