I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
When I first started reading science fiction in my teens, most of the books came in the distinctive yellow jacket with mauve font of publisher Gollancz. Scouting for the cover pic to put in this post, I saw that Gollancz, now the SF & Fantasy imprint of Orion books had included it in their 50th anniversary editions … It took me right back.
I am Legend was first published in 1954; it was Matheson’s third novel. His fourth would go on to make cinematic history – The Shrinking Man would become a huge film hit as The Incredible Shrinking Man in 1957. I remember adoring the film, and applauding the philosophical soliloquy at the end as Scott accepts his place in the universe. I now read that this speech was not in the novel, but also that several scenes in the novel were not in the film too.
Anyway, back to Legend – which has been filmed four times over the years, most recently starring Will Smith in 2007. A plague has infected mankind, mutating humans into bloodthirsty, nocturnal creatures – vampires. Robert Neville could be the last man alive – he’s had to say sayonara to his wife and child, and despite the awfulness of his situation, something keeps him going on. By day he goes out scavenging, and killing vampires; by night he boards himself into his house, turns the music up and often drowns his sorrows in whisky. The vampires keep the pressure up, trying to tempt him out – especially the creature who used to be his workmate and neighbour Ben.
Neville is a practical sort though. He has a generator, fuel and freezers full of food. He has set up a workshop in his late daughter’s bedroom – and he turns bundles of stakes on his lathe. He grows garlic in his outhouse – true to form, the creatures appear to loathe it, they can’t live in the light either. He starts going to the library to learn about blood and diseases, and his diligence appears to be paying off …
This novel has an excellent balance between SF and dystopian horror. The vampires are scientifically explained which makes a change, and they are more zombie-like than traditional vampires too. The parts of the book in which Neville relives the demise of his family are inevitably sad, but he deals with it in the same dogged way that he deals with everything else.
All through the novel, you are dying to know whether he is the last man alive, and this sustains the plot through to the end, where I was surprised at the twist in the tail. This gritty tale is another SF masterwork. (9/10)