I Am Legend (novel)
First edition cover
|Genre||Science fiction, horror, vampire fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction|
|Publisher||Gold Medal Books|
|August 7, 1954|
|Pages||160 (1954 edition)|
I Am Legend is a 1954 post-apocalyptic horror novel by American writer Richard Matheson that was influential in the modern development of zombie and vampire literature and in popularizing the concept of a worldwide apocalypse due to disease. The novel was a success and was adapted into the films The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and I Am Legend (2007). It was also an inspiration behind Night of the Living Dead (1968).
Robert Neville appears to be the sole survivor of a pandemic that has killed most of the human population and turned the remainder into "vampires" that largely conform to their stereotypes in fiction and folklore: they are blood-sucking, pale-skinned, and nocturnal, though otherwise indistinguishable from normal humans. Implicitly set in Los Angeles, the novel details Neville's life in the months and eventually years after the outbreak as he attempts to comprehend, research, and possibly cure the disease. Swarms of vampires surround his house nightly and try to find ways to get inside, which includes the females exposing themselves and his vampire neighbor relentlessly shouting for him to come out. Neville survives by barricading himself inside his house every night; he is further protected by the traditional vampire repellents of garlic, mirrors, and crucifixes. Weekly dust storms ravage the city, and during the day, when the vampires are inactive, Neville drives around to search them out in order to kill them with wooden stakes (since they seem impervious to his guns' bullets) and to scavenge for supplies. Neville's past is occasionally revealed through flashbacks; the disease claimed his daughter, whose body the government forced him to burn, as well as his wife, whose body he secretly buried but then had to kill after she rose from the dead as a vampire.
After bouts of depression and alcoholism, Neville finally determines there must be some scientific reasons behind the vampires' origins, behaviors, and aversions, so he sets out to investigate. He obtains books and other research materials from a library and through gradual research discovers the root of the disease is probably a Bacillus strain of bacteria capable of infecting both deceased and living hosts. His experiments with microscopes also reveal that the bacteria are deadly sensitive to garlic and sunlight. One day, a stray, injured dog finds its way to his street, filling Neville with amazed joy. Desperate for company, Neville painstakingly earns the nervous dog's trust with food and brings it into the home. Despite his efforts, the sickly dog dies a week later, and Neville, robbed of all hope, resignedly returns to learning more about the vampires.
Neville's continued readings and experiments on incapacitated vampires help him create new theories. He believes vampires are affected by mirrors and crosses because of "hysterical blindness", the result of previous psychological conditioning of the infected. Driven insane by the disease, the infected now react as they believe they should when confronted with these items. Even then, their reaction is constrained to the beliefs of the particular person; for example, a Christian vampire would fear the cross, but a Jewish vampire would not. Neville additionally discovers more efficient means of killing the vampires, other than just driving a stake into their hearts. This includes exposing vampires to direct sunlight or inflicting wide, oxygen-exposing wounds anywhere on their bodies so that the bacteria switch from being anaerobic symbionts to aerobic parasites, rapidly consuming their hosts when exposed to air, which gives the appearance of the vampires instantly liquefying. However, the bacteria also produce resilient "body glue" that instantly seals blunt or narrow wounds, making the vampires bulletproof. With his new knowledge, Neville is killing such large numbers of vampires in his daily forays that his nightly visitors have diminished significantly. Neville further believes the pandemic was spread not so much by direct vampire bites as by bacteria-bearing mosquitos and dust storms in the cities following a recent war. The inconsistency of Neville's results in handling vampires also leads him to realize that there are in fact two differently-reacting types of vampires: those conscious and living with a worsening infection and those who have died but been reanimated by the bacteria (i.e. undead).
After three years, Neville sees a terrified woman in broad daylight. Neville is immediately suspicious after she recoils violently in the presence of garlic, but they slowly win each other's trust. Eventually, the two comfort each other romantically and he explains some of his findings, including his theory that he developed immunity against the infection after being bitten by an infected vampire bat years ago. He wants to know if the woman, named Ruth, is infected or immune, vowing to treat her if she is infected, and she reluctantly allows him to take a blood sample but suddenly knocks him unconscious as he views the results. When Neville wakes, he discovers a note from Ruth confessing that she is indeed a vampire sent to spy on him and that he was responsible for the death of her husband, another vampire. The note further suggests that only the undead vampires are pathologically violent but not those who were alive at the time of infection and who still survive due to chance mutations in their bacteria. These living-infected have slowly overcome their disease and are attempting to build a new society. They have developed medication that diminishes the worst of their symptoms. Ruth warns Neville that her feelings for him are true but that her people will attempt to capture him and that he should try to escape the city.
However, assuming he will be treated fairly by the new society, Neville stays at his house until infected members arrive and violently dispatch the undead vampires outside his house with fiendish glee. Realizing the infected attackers may intend to kill him after all, he fires on them and in turn is shot and captured. Fatally wounded, Neville is placed in a barred cell where he is visited by Ruth, who informs him that she is a senior member of the new society but, unlike the others, does not resent him. After discussing the effects of Neville's vampire-killing activities on the new society, she acknowledges the public need for Neville's execution but, out of mercy, gives him a packet of fast-acting suicide pills. Neville accepts his fate and asks Ruth not to let this society become too heartless. Ruth promises to try, kisses him, and leaves. Neville goes to his prison window and sees the infected staring back at him with the same hatred and fear that he once felt for them; he realizes that he, a remnant of old humanity, is now a legend to the new race born of the infection. He recognizes that their desire to kill him, after he has killed so many of their loved ones, is not something he can condemn. As the pills take effect, he is amused by the thought that he will become their new superstition and legend, just as vampires once were to humans.
The book is full of good ideas, every other one of which is immediately dropped and kicked out of sight. The characters are child's drawings, as blank-eyed and expressionless as the author himself in his back-cover photograph. The plot limps. All the same, the story could have been an admirable minor work in the tradition of Dracula, if only the author, or somebody, had not insisted on encumbering it with the year's most childish set of 'scientific' rationalizations.
Galaxy reviewer Groff Conklin described Legend as "a weird [and] rather slow-moving first novel… a horrid, violent, sometimes exciting but too often overdone tour de force." Anthony Boucher praised the novel, saying "Matheson has added a new variant on the Last Man theme… and has given striking vigor to his invention by a forceful style of storytelling which derives from the best hard-boiled crime novels".
despite having vampires in it, [the novel] is not a novel on vampires, nor even a horror nor sci-fi novel at all, in the deepest sense. Instead, it is perhaps the greatest novel written on human loneliness. It far surpasses Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in that regard. Its insights into what it is to be human go far beyond genre, and is all the more surprising because, having read his short stories—which range from competent but simplistic, to having classic Twilight Zone twists (he was a major contributor to the original TV series)—there is nothing within those short stories that suggests the supreme majesty of the existential masterpiece I Am Legend was aborning.
Although Matheson calls the assailants in his novel "vampires" and though their condition is transmitted through bacteria in the blood and garlic is a repellant to this strain of bacteria, there is little similarity between them and vampires as developed by John William Polidori and his successors, who come straight out of the gothic fiction tradition. In I Am Legend, the "vampires" share more similarities with zombies, and the novel influenced the zombie genre and popularized the concept of a worldwide zombie apocalypse. Although the idea has now become commonplace, a scientific origin for vampirism or zombies was fairly original when written. According to Clasen,
I Am Legend is the product of an anxious artistic mind working in an anxious cultural climate. However, it is also a playful take on an old archetype, the vampire (the reader is even treated to Neville’s reading and put-down of Bram Stoker's Dracula). Matheson goes to great lengths to rationalize or naturalize the vampire myth, transplanting the monster from the otherworldly realms of folklore and Victorian supernaturalism to the test tube of medical inquiry and rational causation. With I Am Legend, Matheson instituted the germ theory of vampirism, a take on the old archetype which has since been tackled by other writers (notably, Dan Simmons in Children of the Night from 1992).
Though referred to as "the first modern vampire novel", it is as a novel of social theme that I Am Legend made a lasting impression on the cinematic zombie genre, by way of director George A. Romero, who acknowledged its influence and that of its 1964 adaptation, The Last Man on Earth, upon his seminal film Night of the Living Dead (1968). Discussing the creation of Night of the Living Dead, Romero remarked, "I had written a short story, which I basically had ripped off from a Richard Matheson novel called I Am Legend." Moreover, film critics noted similarities between Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Last Man on Earth (1964).
Stephen King said, "Books like I Am Legend were an inspiration to me". Film critics noted that the British film 28 Days Later (2002) and its sequel 28 Weeks Later both feature a rabies-type plague ravaging Great Britain, analogous to I Am Legend.
This book was how a [sic] individual would handle thinking that he was the last survivor on Earth. This is why in Fallout 1 when you're voted to leave the Vault, we really wanted that sense of isolationism; that sense of: You are the only person out here on the Wasteland who is, quote, "a normal person", and we wanted you to feel, like, special in that way.
The book has also been adapted into a comic book miniseries titled Richard Matheson's I Am Legend by Steve Niles and Elman Brown. It was published in 1991 by Eclipse Comics and collected into a trade paperback by IDW Publishing.
I Am Legend has been adapted into a feature-length film three times, as well as into a direct-to-video feature film called I Am Omega. Differing from the book, each of them portrays the Neville character as an accomplished scientist. The three adaptations show him finding a remedy and passing it on. Adaptations differ from the novel by setting the events three years after the disaster, instead of happening “in the span of” three years. Also adaptations are set in the near future, a few years after the film's release, while the novel is set 20 years after its publication date.
It has also been adapted as the Spanish short student film Soy leyenda.
The Last Man on Earth
In 1964, Vincent Price starred as Dr. Robert Morgan (rather than "Neville") in The Last Man on Earth (the original title of this Italian production was L'ultimo uomo della Terra). Matheson wrote the original screenplay for this adaptation, but due to later rewrites did not wish his name to appear in the credits; as a result, Matheson is credited under the pseudonym "Logan Swanson".
The Omega Man
In 1971, a far different version was produced, titled The Omega Man. It starred Charlton Heston (as Robert Neville) and Anthony Zerbe. Matheson had no influence on the screenplay for this film, and although the premise remains, it deviates from the novel in several ways, removing the infected people's vampiric characteristics, except their sensitivity to light. In this version, the infected are portrayed as nocturnal, black-robed, albino mutants, known as the Family. Though intelligent, they eschew modern technology, believing it (and those who use it, such as Neville) to be evil and the cause of humanity's downfall.
I Am Legend
In 2007, a third adaptation of the novel was produced, this time titled I Am Legend. Directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Will Smith as Robert Neville, this film uses both Matheson's novel and the 1971 Omega Man film as its sources. This adaptation also deviates significantly from the novel. In this version, the infection is caused by a virus originally intended to cure cancer. Some vampiric elements are retained, such as sensitivity to UV light and attraction to blood. The infected are portrayed as nocturnal, feral creatures of limited intelligence who hunt the uninfected with berserker-like rage. Other creatures, such as dogs, are also infected by the virus. The ending of the film was also altered to portray Neville as sacrificing his life to save humanity, rather than being executed for crimes against the surviving vampiric humans, although a deleted ending for the film was closer in spirit to the book. The film takes place in New York City in the years 2009 and 2012 rather than Los Angeles in 1975–1977.
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- end credits: "Based on the screenplay by John & Joyce Corrington, and the novel by Richard Matheson"
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