I Am Legend (novel)
First edition cover
|Genre||Science fiction, horror, vampire fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction|
|Publisher||Gold Medal Books|
|Pages||160 pp (1954 edition)|
I Am Legend is a 1954 horror fiction novel by American writer Richard Matheson. It was influential in the development of the zombie genre of fiction, and in popularizing the concept of a worldwide apocalypse due to disease. The novel was a success and was adapted to film as The Last Man on Earth in 1964, as The Omega Man in 1971, and as I Am Legend in 2007, along with a direct-to-video 2007 production capitalizing on that film, I Am Omega. The novel was also the inspiration behind the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead.
Robert Neville is the apparent sole survivor of a pandemic whose symptoms resemble vampirism. It is said that the pandemic was caused by a war, and that it was spread by dust storms in the cities and an explosion in the mosquito population. The narrative details Neville's daily life in Los Angeles as he attempts to comprehend, research, and possibly cure the disease, to which he is immune. Neville's past is revealed through flashbacks; the disease claimed his wife and daughter, and he was forced to kill his wife after she seemingly rose from the dead as a vampire and attacked him.
Neville survives by barricading himself by sunset inside his house, further protected by garlic, mirrors, and crucifixes. Swarms of vampires, led by Neville's neighbor, Ben Cortman, regularly surround his house, trying to find ways to get inside. During the day, he scavenges for supplies and searches out the inactive vampires, driving stakes into their hearts to kill them. He finds brief solace in a stray dog that finds its way to his house. Desperate for company, Neville slowly earns the dog's trust with food and brings it into the house. Despite his efforts, the dog proves to be infected and dies a week later.
After bouts of depression and alcoholism, Neville decides to find out the scientific cause of the pandemic. He obtains books and other research materials from a library, and through painstaking research discovers the root of the disease in a strain of bacteria capable of infecting both deceased and living hosts. He also discovers that the vampires are affected by the garlic, 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 also discovers more efficient means of killing the vampires, other than just driving a stake into their hearts. This includes exposing them to direct sunlight (which kills the bacteria) or inflicting deep wounds on their bodies so that the bacteria switch from being anaerobic symbionts to aerobic parasites, rapidly consuming their hosts when exposed to air. He is now killing such large numbers of vampires in his daily forays that his nightly visitors have diminished significantly.
After three years, Neville sees an apparently uninfected woman, Ruth, in broad daylight, and captures her. After some convincing, Ruth tells him her story of how she and her husband survived the pandemic (though her husband was killed two weeks earlier). Neville is puzzled by the fact that she is upset when he speaks of killing vampires; he thinks that if her story of survival was true, she would have become hardened to the act. He attempts to test whether she is a vampire by exposing her to garlic, which causes her to recoil violently. At night Neville is startled awake and finds Ruth fully clothed at the front door of the house. Suspicious, he questions her motives, but relates the trauma of his past, whereupon they comfort each other. Ruth reluctantly allows him to take a blood sample but knocks him unconscious when the sample reveals that she is infected.
When he wakes, Neville discovers a note from Ruth confessing that she is actually infected and that Neville was responsible for her husband's death. Ruth admits that she was sent to spy on him. The infected have slowly overcome their disease until they can spend short periods of time in sunlight, and are attempting to build a new society. They have developed medication which helps them to overcome the most severe symptoms of the infection. Ruth warns Neville that her people will attempt to capture him, and that he should leave his house and escape to the mountains.
Neville cannot bring himself to leave his house, however, and assumes that he will be captured and treated fairly by the new society. Infected members of the new society eventually attack the house. During the attack, the members of the new society violently dispatch the other feral vampires outside the house, and Neville becomes alarmed at the grim enjoyment they appear to take from this task. Realising that the intention of the attackers may be to kill him rather than to capture him he tries to defend himself with a pistol, leading to one of the infected shooting and badly injuring him.
Neville wakes in a barred cell where he is visited by Ruth, who informs him that she is a ranking member of the new society but, unlike the others, does not resent him. Ruth attempts to present a facade of indifference to Neville, but is unable to maintain it during her discussion with him. After discussing the effects of Neville's vampire killing activities on the new society, she acknowledges the need for Neville's execution and gives him pills, claiming they will "make it easier". Fatally injured, Neville accepts his fate and asks Ruth not to let this society become heartless. Ruth kisses him and leaves.
Neville goes to his prison window and sees the infected waiting for his execution. He now sees that the infected view him with the same hatred and fear that he once felt for the vampires; he realizes that he, a remnant of old humanity, is now a legend to the new race born of the infection—a monster that walks by day and seeks out vampires to kill. He recognises that their desire to kill him is not something he can condemn. As the pills take effect, he thinks: "[I am] a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend."
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 blood and garlic is an apotropaic-like repellant, there is little similarity between them and vampires as developed by John William Polidori and his successors, which come straight out of the gothic fiction tradition. I Am Legend 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.
The book has also been adapted into a comic book mini-series 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 to a feature-length film four times (one of which does not credit Matheson as the source). Differing from the book, each of them portrays the Neville character as an accomplished scientist. The first 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 film release, while the novel is set twenty years after its publication date.
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. The film takes place in New York City in the years 2009 and 2012 rather than Los Angeles in 1975–1977.
I Am Omega
The Asylum production I Am Omega is a 2007 American feature length direct-to-video release starring Mark Dacascos. The film takes place in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, which is overrun by savage, cannibalistic humans who have degenerated into a feral subspecies as the result of a genetic virus. Once again, the adaption deviates from the novel and does not credit Matheson.
In this adaption, "Renchard" has been forced to live in a daily struggle for survival against the mutants. Renchard is contacted via webcam by Brianna (Jennifer Lee Wiggins), another survivor who was stranded in Los Angeles while trying to find Antioch, a community of survivors. Renchard is forced to aid her and two others escape the city in which he has strategically placed time bombs, set to go off in 24 hours.
This film was rushed into production by The Asylum and released a month prior to the bigger budget Francis Lawrence project.
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- "Recommended Reading," F&SF, November 1954, p.99.
- Schneider, Dan (1953-01-05). "I am Legend by Richard Matheson". hackwriters.com. Retrieved 2013-06-03.
- 2011 Bram Stoker Award™ winners and Vampire Novel of the Century Award winner
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- I Am Legend at the Grand Comics Database
- I Am Legend at the Comic Book DB
- I Am Legend: Awakening at the Comic Book DB
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- Stan Wiater; Matthew R. Bradley; Paul Stuve (2009). The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson. Kensington Publishing Corporation. pp. 177–. ISBN 978-0-8065-3113-7. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
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- end credits: "Based on the screenplay by John & Joyce Corrington, and the novel by Richard Matheson"
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