I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

i am legendLoneliness, prejudice and the will to survive…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Robert Neville is the only human left in his neighbourhood and possibly the world. It’s some months since a devastating plague swept through humanity, killing many and turning the rest into vampires. For some reason, Neville alone seems to be immune. Now he spends each night barricaded into his house, surrounded by all the traditional anti-vampire weapons – garlic, crosses, mirrors – while a growing horde of vampires gathers outside howling for his blood. By day, the vampires go into a coma-like sleep and Neville uses this time to fight back the only way he can – by killing as many of them as he can find.

Put away your anti-vampire fiction prejudices for a moment. The book is sci-fi in the sense that it’s set in a near-future and involves a plague, Neville’s world is about as dystopian as you can get and there are passages of great horror writing. But Matheson combines all these genres to produce something that is fundamentally about humanity – about loneliness, prejudice and the overwhelming will to survive.

Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth (1964) which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.
Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth (1964) which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.

The story is told from Neville’s perspective, though in the third person, and begins by showing his day-to-day existence – checking his house is still secure, making good any damage the vampires have done the night before, collecting any supplies he might need from the abandoned grocery stores. Then if there’s enough daylight left, he takes his stock of wooden stakes and hunts for vampires. The horrors of the plague are never far from his mind, though, and it’s through his memories that the reader learns what happened at that time. And Neville hasn’t given up all hope yet, either that there might be other people who escaped with their humanity intact, or that by studying the medical books in the abandoned libraries he might be able to fathom out the cause of the plague and develop a cure.

Richard Matheson
Richard Matheson

The quality of the writing is very high, not always a given in sci-fi. Where a modern day writer would doubtless waffle on for a stultifying 500 pages and throw in a love triangle, (yes, I am bitter…), Matheson cuts to the chase and packs a huge amount into a relatively small space. The search for a cure is done interestingly, with Neville taking the usual vampire story tropes one by one and testing them out to see which ones are true, then speculating on possible scientific causes for why they should work. Why garlic? Why do they only go outside when its dark? Why wooden stakes?

But when evening comes and the shouting and howling begins, then we see the utter loneliness and despair that haunt his nights, with memories of his happy, normal life before the plague constantly reminding him of all he has lost. It’s at these times that he questions what it is that makes him go on day after day, why he is driven to continue with the futile task of killing vampires when he knows that he’ll never be able to make even a tiny dent in their overwhelming numbers. Would it not be easier to give up, go outside and join them? But he is disgusted by them, a visceral, instinctive disgust at their very nature, a disgust that comes as much from hatred of difference as from fear.

Charlton Heston in The Omega Man which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.
Charlton Heston in The Omega Man which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.

The descriptive writing is spare but very effective in building an atmosphere of fear and tension, with occasional gleams of hope serving only to deepen the pervading darkness of despair. Neville isn’t a super-hero – he’s just a normal guy, meaning that the reader empathises with him (this reader empathised so much, she did her usual crying thing again at a couple of points). But what pushes this book beyond good and towards great is unfortunately the thing that cannot be discussed in a review without major spoilers. Suffice it to say that, when you have finished reading, you will probably find that you feel very differently than you expected to, and might well be left pondering the very nature of what it means to be human. Intrigued? Then read it…

PS If you’re thinking “Oh, but I’ve seen the Will Smith film and I know the story already” apparently you don’t. I haven’t seen it, but I understand it’s been changed out of all recognition, losing the whole point of the book in the process – why do they do that?

Will Smith in I Am Legend (2007) which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.
Will Smith in I Am Legend (2007) which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.
Book 6
Book 6

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

72 thoughts on “I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

  1. The Will Smith movie was pretty good in places…esp the stuff to do with loneliness (although my boys all prefer the more suspenseful and scary action scenes!)

    I have never considered reading the book, but this is a great review for it – thanks 🙂

    • I’d quite like to see the Will Smith movie sometime even if it is different from the book. The stills make it look as if it would be great visually and he’s a good actor.

      But the book is very different – less action, more thoughtful – and very much worth reading. If you ever do, I hope you enjoy it! 🙂

  2. I don’t know why filmmakers do that either, FictionFan. I wish they wouldn’t. I’ll admit I’ve not seen the film, but I know exactly what you mean. As to the book…my first thought when I read the beginning of your post was, ‘No thanks, no vampires, please.’ Just not my cuppa. But the story does seem richer than I’d have thought. And it is interesting to speculate on that sort of post-plague world.

    • It’s a pity in a way that they are vampires, because the book isn’t really about them – it’s about how Neville copes with the situation. But the vampire thing does put people off. I suspect you might be impressed by it, if you ever do get a chance to read it. Definitely one of the better dystopias, I think. (And short! 😉 )

  3. I thought of The Omega Man as I read your review, before I got to the picture and its caption. I liked that film. I like the sound of the book, too — even if that film missed the point of it 😉

    • It’s so long since I saw The Omega Man that I only have the vaguest memories of it, but I feel as if I remember enjoying it a lot, especially Heston’s performance. But it appears all the films diverged away from the stroy of the book, and I can see why to an extent. The book is less action and more thoughtful, so probably not exciting enough for a movie. If you do get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it! 🙂

        • I know!! It starts this Sunday, I believe. I still love the old Francesca Annis version so I’ll have to try to get that out of my mind. I don’t know the actress who’s playing Tuppence, but I think David Walliams should be a good Tommy. I’m a bit worried though – it was when they last showed it on TV that I ended up with two kittens… don’t think I could cope with another two! 😉

          • Brilliant, not long to wait. I thought David Walliams would be really good, he has that nice sort of manner about him.
            Especially not two more kittens with the same names! I hope they enjoy it, too 😀

  4. I would never have considered reading this, but your review has me reconsidering my prejudice! I’ll look out for it. I’ve seen the Will Smith version but this sounds very different.

    • Yay! I wouldn’t normally read vampire books either, but really this one is much more about Neville than the vampires. And thought-provoking! I must watch the Will Smith film. I can see why they’d change it – the book probably doesn’t have enough action to sustain a film, and the ending works much better in words than action, I think. I hope you enjoy it! 🙂

  5. The Will Smith movie is a great adaptation of the source material…for the first hour. The second hour it goes off in an entirely different direction, losing the entire point of the novel and the power of the ending.

    Maybe if they make the book into a movie a third time, they’ll finally get it right!

    • I’d quite like to see the film anyway and at least I’d know in advance that it diverges. But since the point of the book is “the point”, if you see what I mean, then you have to wonder why they keep making films of it that miss the point! Great book, though – I enjoyed it even more than I remembered.

  6. I read the book and wish I had not seen the movie before I read the book. The book is different from the movie with few likeness. I should re-read the book, but I don’t know when. I read it too close to the movie which I saw three times just because I like Will Smith.

    • I always prefer to read the book first. I watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, loved it, and then read the book, and they’re so different I ended up hating the book. I think you’re right in that you need to leave a gap between the film and the book. I’ve not seen Will Smith in much, but I do like him – I think I’ll watch the film sometime. At least I’m forewarned…

  7. What an interest. I’m always so behind on book-related thingys…had no idea it was a book! I was aware of VP’s movie…and Will’s, I think. It’s rather cool that they’re vampires in the book and not zombies. Everyone knows zombies aren’t fierce at all! Easily dealt with, see.

  8. Unfortunately the V word is such a huge turn-off. I think I have only read 3 books which have overcome my irritation – the Stoker one, Elisabeth Kostova’s The Historian, (I’m almost tempted to a re-read) and Marcus Sedgwick’s A Love Like Blood which is not really a vampire tale at all, but something else, and I only read THAT one because it was Marcus Sedgwick and therefore had to be many cuts above tired old teeth.

    Having had a terrible, terrible experience with another dystopian post-apocalyptic book which turned out to be about zombies, a genre I’m very fond of – dystopian post-apocalypse – has lost it’s lure a bit, as I suspected there would be a lot more vamps weres and zombies arriving any time soon.

    Is this a subtle attempt to steer me towards American Pastoral, as I refuse to be bitten (see what i did there!) by this?

    • Hmm… well I won’t try to twist your arm on this one, except to say it’s really about Neville much more than it’s about vampires. And anyway the vampires behave more like zombies…

      I would always say that I’m not really a fan of dystopian books, but in reality I’ve enjoyed a fair few over the years. But I do prefer the human v human scenario or human v nature to human v monster.

      You will read American Pastoral eventually, even if only to make me shut up about it…

      • I have just bought one of the second hand 1p plus postage market place seller copies on Amazon. It will arrive in a few days to join the tottering TBR.

        Though……..thinking about Portnoy’s Complaint I’m suddenly feeling a little worried about a second hand copy of a Roth book. (Too much information, I’m sure)

        See how biddable I am (sometimes)

    • Lady Fancifull, “American Pastoral” is really good! Now, it is not a “fun” read, in any sense. But I think it is one of the very best American novels of the last sixty years or so. I will confess that I would read some of it, then put it down for a few days, maybe because the prose was so wrenching and true. But it stays with one, and I am very glad I read it. But of course I know that tastes will vary even among intelligent and well-read people. Even so, I like to recommend this book, because one rarely encounters writing of this depth and intelligence.

      • Now FictionFan knows of my predilection for books of some heft and misery. She shouted loudly/persuaded me sweetly towards Grapes of Wrath and Revolutionary Road and was absolutely right.

        It’s the decades long lingering memory of Portnoy’s Complaint which is making me more resistant to Roth. I keep remembering liver…………….. But she assures me this is very different. I’m sure a combination of bloggers strong-arming me towards American Pastoral will eventually help me not to feel……….lily livered.

        • See? It’s not just me! Roth is a great writer when he gets away from his self (and sex) obsession and he’s at the top of his game in AP. Certain critics have even declared ti to be The Great American Novel, you know… 😉

  9. I haven’t read this, but I did see the Will Smith movie – it’ll be interesting to see how they differ.

      • I read this tonight and realised that, yes, I had read it, but I must have been about 10 or 11 at the time and I realised that I didn’t understand it at all. All the stuff about germs and so on went right over my head and the psychological aspects were way outside my understanding. Because the Will Smith version was so different, it didn’t even trigger my memory.
        A deeply scary read – thanks for sending me back to it.

        • Yes, I think we both read some books a bit young – you more than me. Sometimes they work on two levels though, and this might be one of those. I’m glad you enjoyed it! The ending is brilliant but so’s a lot of the descriptive stuff – the pit!!

  10. I remember enjoying the book a lot too. As you say, very different from the movie versions — although I’d say The Omega Man is a damn’ fine movie in its own right.

    • It’s so long since I watched The Omega Man I’ve only got the vaguest memory of it, but I think I enjoyed it quite a lot. That was probably before I read the book though. I’d quite like to see the Will Smith version too sometime – what did you think of it?

  11. I KNEW this would be one of the 5-stars. 😀

    The end is fantastic. This and Stoker’s Dracula are the only two vampire books I really enjoy and have read multiple times. I Am Legend holds up fairly well on a re-read too since the writing is strong and you’re thinking about the end throughout.

    • Haha! I was hoping I’d got you worried… 😉

      I know – the first time I read it I was blown away by the ending and when I started to read it again this time I wondered if knowing would spoil it for me. But it didn’t – it just made me look at it from a different angle. In fact, I’d say it’s a book you really have to read twice. Brilliant!

  12. I think the Will Smith film is great but I did know that it is very different from the book so really interesting to hear your thoughts on this. I would definitely like to give the book a go.

    • The film does sound good even if it doesn’t follow the book exactly – I really want to watch it now! The book is one of those that really deserves the title of ‘classic’, so I hope you enjoy it if you do get a chance to read it! 🙂

  13. Well, you don’t give out your five-star reviews casually, so I will indeed try it. Just from the Twilight Zone episodes he did, and from “Somewhere in Time,” one can appreciate Matheson’s humanity, and that is essential in science fiction or horror writing, at least I think so.

    I am certainly not a science fiction expert, but I generally think that the movies almost never get it right when they take a sci-fi or horror story and film it. They’re interested in box office, and often in dumbing things down for the audience, not confusing them or making them think too hard. There are exceptions to this, of course, but not many I’ve seen. Actually, except for really atmospheric ghost stories, I don’t think that horror works well in a film mode, as it is more psychological than visual.

    So you have convinced me that it is worth reading! And maybe Richard Ford does not get the five-star!

    • Yep, ultimately all good fiction should be about humanity, whatever the genre. And he’s a much better writer than many sci-fi authors who rely on their imagination to cover up shortfalls in skill. I’m no sci-fi expert either, but I agree. I think they look on sci-fi as the basis for action thrillers – lots of gizmos and stunning visuals (all of which I enjoy admittedly) but light on insight. What I don’t understand is why they don’t just go for original screenplays rather than converting books badly – it’s bound to annoy anyone who has read the book and is unlikely to attract anyone who hasn’t. But then, they are multi-millionaires living in glamorous Hollywood and I’m… not, so I suppose I have to assume they know what they’re doing. 😉

      Haha! I knew this would blow my cover on the Ford… but I’m glad I’ve tempted you towards this one anyway. Hope it works better for you than Fallen Land – my reputation’s feeling a bit shaky…

      • Well, I haven’t completely abandoned “Fallen Land,” But I did order “I Am Legend” yesterday, as well as the Beulah Heights mystery you thought so well of. And I plan to read Matheson’s book as soon as I get it, and then the mystery…and then maybe back to the other–unless you will have some good recommendations in the meantime, which might forestall it. 🙂

        • Oh dear! I’m terrified now! What if you hate them all?? I shall have to find some way of passing the blame onto Lady Fancifull… 😉

          I suspect you won’t be tempted by tomorrow’s review though…

          • I will not blame you! I am just happy that I have enough regard for your discernment (and of course I read what you say in your reviews; though if the book sounds good, I try to avoid too many plot points, so as to be surprised), that I am happy to take a chance on some that you really like. It used to be much easier for me to find books to read, but not so easy now, probably because there aren’t as many good ones that I haven’t yet read. And I’ve bought plenty of books on my own which I did not like, so I’m happy to take some chances based on your opinions. I’m sure that there are some books that I really like that you would not like as well, though I would hope not very many. 🙂

            Now, I might blame Lady Fancifull, but that might seem a bit irrational. :

            • I agree – it’s quite hard to find the gold admist the dross, especially since there’s a kind of tendency amongst reviewers – professional and amateur – to be overly kind, always trying to talk about the positives without mentioning the negatives. I get increasingly grumpy about it. Some of the books I’ve enjoyed most in the last couple of years – Arzee the Dwarf, Equilateral, for example – I’ve stumbled across by accident, by virtue of getting review copies. They’ve been completely unhyped and pretty much sunk without trace while other vastly inferior stuff has been shoved in our faces from every media outlet and prize committee. And when every review declares every book to be the best ever written, then reading reviews becomes a fairly pointless exercise.

              Blaming Lady Fancifull might be irrational, but it’s fun! And she’s used to it… 😉

  14. I couldn’t help giggling when you wrote this: “Where a modern day writer would doubtless waffle on for a stultifying 500 pages and throw in a love triangle, (yes, I am bitter…)” Sad but true.
    I haven’t read this, but now I want to read it, thanks to your review.
    I don’t know why film adaptations have to complete change the story. Why bother adapting the story if you’re going to totally change it?

    • Haha! You can tell I’ve been emotionally scarred, can’t you? 😉 I think you’d enjoy the book – hope you do anyway! I reckon it’s that the book doesn’t have quite the explosive action that they like for the big sci-fi blockbusters, but I never understand why they don’t just commission original screenplays rather than badly converting classic books. You hardly ever see a sci-fi adaptation that sticks to the original. I hope they don’t mess too much with The Martian when it comes out…

      • Maybe I’m being too cynical or intellectually elitist, but I don’t think that Hollywood has very many people who can write good original screenplays about anything. So this way, they get a starting point, a basic plot, and then they figure that they will expand it to fit the kind of film they think draws audiences.

        They have taken about six Philip Dick short stories and made films out of them. None of them really catches the essence of what Dick wrote. But he had such wonderful plot ideas, so they take them, and then do not have the imagination to convey them. Or maybe the audience would actually prefer action chase sequences with lots of CGI. As you say, these people are making hundreds of millions doing this, so their gain is in a sense our loss.

        • Sci-fi plots in particular do get recycled a lot. As a big fan of Star Trek TNG and Voyager (bet my credibility just nose-dived there!) I notice both that loads of their plots come from earlier sci-fi novels – not least Asimov’s robots turning into Commander Data – but also I see Star Trek plots turning up in later sci-fi series and movies all the time. I guess expecting them to be able to keep dreaming up completely original stuff might be setting the bar too high, but I still wish that when they film a book they’d at least try to stick to the main point…

  15. I’m another one who enjoyed the Will Smith movie (I’ve read the book too). The stories go in really different directions in the end but the movie does a terrific job of capturing Neville’s intense loneliness. It’s funny, I never think of the book or the movie as a vampire story – I always think of it as more of an apocalyptic/last man standing type tale. It’s unfortunate that vampire tales have gotten such a bad rap in recent years.

    • I really must watch the movie – everyone who’s commented has said they’ve enjoyed it, I think, even if it is different from the book. Yes, the vampires really take a back seat in the book – it’s all about Neville’s reaction to them. And really they behave more like zombies than vampires for most of the time anyway. I know – some of the old vampire stuff is great, but since they started turning them into the attractive love interest(!) they seem to have lost their terrifying edge a bit…

    • Sounds as if the movie and the book are so different that they should really be treated separately. The book is great, though – hope you enjoy it! And I think I’ll have to watch the movie after all this talking about it…

  16. Oh my goodness! Have you just tempted me with this wretched, er, I mean scary, novel? I was hoping you’d forget about this one… And now, I’m actually contemplating reading it! How did you do that?! I will hold you accountable for any subsequent nightmares, FF… Definitely a day read!

  17. You know me: “I didn’t read the book, but I saw the movie.” Didn’t really enjoy the movie too much. The book sounds far better.

    • Well, I haven’t seen the movie – but I think the book sounds better too! I think I’ll give the movie a try sometime though – at least I know in advance it doesn’t stick to the book.

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