Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Science & Superstition

I Am Legend

I Am Legend 


“Full circle. A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend.”  ― Richard Matheson, I am Legend and Other Stories

A single man is isolated in his own home in a land that has become alien. The opening sentence of the novel ominously describes the danger lurking as simply "they". With this brilliant opening Richard Matheson uses an understated style to combine the horror of vampirism with the analysis of science as his lonely protagonist, Robert Neville, faces the unknown.
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.  We see Neville by day going through the routine activities to maintain his lonely existence, while by night he broods, deadens his pain with alcohol, and plans for his next day.  In it all he does not lose his will to live and this keeps him going, his mental abilities seem to lift him enough that he survives to live the next day.  The story 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 (for example 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. 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. It is a short novel that packs a lot of ideas and power into a few pages. No wonder that it is a classic.

I am Legend by Richard Matheson. Tor Books, 2007 (1954)

3 comments:

Parrish Lantern said...

Funnily enough I was reading about this, this, this morning in my 1001 books you must read before you die. Best wishes for this New Year.

Amy said...

I'm glad you wrote about this. My sons are obsessed with the Will Smith movie, and I did not know it was based on such a thought-provoking book.

James said...

Amy & Parrish,
Thanks for the comments. Matheson was writing stories on the border between science fiction and horror in the early 1950s.