I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
August, 1971 Berkley Medallion Books
(Original publication 1954)
The cover of this paperback is confusing: “The Omega Man” gets predominance, with “I Am Legend” secondary. This would give the impression that the book is titled “The Omega Man,” tying in with the film, however “I Am Legend” is on the spine and inside the book itself. I thought this was interesting because usually it seems that the orginal title is given priority. At the very least this must confuse online booksellers when they’re listing the book.
I’d never read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, though as a horror-loving teen I often heard of it. I’ve seen The Omega Man a few times over the years; I think I somehow knew, even then, that the movie was different from the source novel. As it turns out, the movie is almost an entirely separate story, only similar in the name of the protagonist, Robert Neville. And honestly The Omega Man is one wonderfully whacked-out movie, with a typically-unflappable Charlton Heston driving around town and blasting away with a subgun, and Anthony Zerbe as the freaked-out leader of a group of albino mutants or somesuch. And let’s not forget the albino black guy in the group – an image that’s still scarier than any CGI I’ve ever seen. Or the bit where Heston watches Woodstock in an empty theater, that wonderfully smug look on his face; awesome commentary on the fall of “the new society” in the post-virus world of The Omega Man.
Well, absolutely none of that is in I Am Legend (which by the way is written in third-person; given the title I was under the impression it would be narrated in first-person). And to be perfectly honest – I’m always honest with you all – I much preferred the film to the book. In fact I sort of wished someone had novelized the script and just made this tie-its own thing, sort of like with the Total Recall novelization of years later. Instead Berkley went the more traditional route and republished Matheson’s original novel, which has nothing much in common with the film. The book is more “low budget” than the film, operating with just a few characters, relatively few “action” scenes, and more focus on the mental state of the hero, with a good bit of “investigative” stuff when he tries to figure out what’s caused everyone in the world but him to turn into a vampire.
That’s another big difference between novel and film: the freak mutants of The Omega Man are normal people who have been mutated by a runaway experimental virus, whereas in the novel they are clearly vampires. Much of I Am Legend is given over to a rumination of how the various vampire legends were born, how much truth there is to them, and why vampires have the strengths and weaknesses attributed to them by legend. For as it turns out Robert Neville doesn’t have much else to do. Whereas Heston’s version of the character lives in a fortress and drives around the empty city in various swank cars, generally just loving the hell out of life, the Neville of the novel is more introspective, content to live in his old house in the Los Angeles area and only going out on runs for supplies. As the novel opens it’s 1976 and Neville has been in his “last man” capacity for some five months, still living in the house he once shared with his wife and daughter and now going about the horrific daily chores of his new life with a matter-of-factness: clearing out the vampire corpses from his yard each morning, dumping them in the city’s fire pit, then going around town to find some sleeping vampires to stake. Then to return to his home before nightfall, when the vampires come out, and lock the doors and blast classical music on the turntable while the vampires outside scream for him to come out.
And yes, that’s 1976, 22 years after the novel’s original publication date, but only a few years away from the release of The Omega Man. Matheson keeps the novel so barebones that this “future” angle never comes into play, and to the author’s credit it could really take place at any time in the later 20th century. The only sci-fi element is vague mentions of an atomic war, possibly with Russia, which America won – even though the “bombings” released radioactive dust storms which ultimately led to the vampiric plague that destroyed hummanity. Neville himself seems to be a vet of some action; there’s mention of “Panama,” where he incurred a wound some years before – later we’ll learn he was bitten by a bat…indeed, a bat Neville now theorizes had bitten a vampire before bitting Neville, hence Neville’s immunity to the vampire plague(!). All this is skillfully strung into the narrative at random intervals, so that Matheson doesn’t spend the majority of the tale world-building. True to the era it was published, I Am Legend barely has any fat, running to a mere 170+ pages.
But then, it operates on a smaller scale than you might think, given that the plot concerns possibly the last human in a world filled with vampires. The best flashback material concerns how the plague affected Neville on a personal level; forcing himself to remember how it all began, Neville recalls how people just started coming down with a strange bug, one that confined them to bed and left them weak. Meanwhile the country struggled on; the flashback concerns Neville and his bedridden wife Virginia discussing what could be causing her to feel so bad, and whether they should send their little girl to school. I got a postmodern chuckle out of all this – what, no mask mandates? No executive orders? No government overreach?? They actually left such decisions to the individual?! But it’s all moot, as this apparently is toward the end – Matheson’s narrative gets a bit skewed in the ensuing apocalyptic events, but we’re to understand these bedridden people die, only to be reborn as vampires – and those who later come down with the disease, like Neville’s poor little girl, are unceremoniously tossed in the fire to prevent transmission.
It takes us readers a while to learn all this, though. In fact the first quarter of I Am Legend is fairly monotonous, Matheson demonstrating how, per Neville later in the book, humans can become used to just about anything. Each day is the same – breakfast, then corpse cleanup, followed by stake sharpening and on into Sears or wherever in town for supplies. Then back home before nightfall to eat dinner, blast classical music on the stereo, make a list of needed supplies, and get drunk on a seemingly endless supply of whiskey. But we see how Neville is losing his grips, some nights so tormented that he almost opens the door to the bloodthirsty vampires out there. We also learn that the females like to strip down and strike provocative poses for him, something that drives Neville insane.
This opening section comes to a head in a suspenseful bit where Neville spends more time out than he reckoned, only to discover too late that his watch has stopped. It’s dark by the time he gets home, and the vampires are out there waiting for him. This is a crazed sequence, but not as believable because Neville manages to get inside despite the masses of vampires chasing him. Also it’s never explained why Neville can’t just hole up someplace else. As I say, I Am Legend operates on a very low-budget level;Neville just sticks to his own house and a few regular stops, with little of the city-roving of The Omega Man.
From here the narrative begins skipping forward at irregular intervals; next it’s later in 1976, then later in the book we’ll move to 1978, before coming to a close in 1979. Just in time for disco! Throughout Neville stays in his house, which is fortified with locks and garlic and run by a generator he has in the garage. He spends this time trying to research vampirism, driving to the science floor of the nearest college and getting the gear he needs. He researches in books and goes around town collecting test experiments; the vampires go into a coma during the day, and Neville uses some of them as guinea pigs. Ultimately he determines that the vampire plague was caused by a germ, and that there are various versions of vampires, like ones who seem to have been dead for a long time and instantly turn into ash when staked.
Neville carries the entire novel, and we stay in his perspective throughout. The book is made up of dense blocks of narrative description, with hardly any dialog; Neville can only talk to himself. His first glimpse of non-vampire life occurs midway through when he encounters a wild dog, and he desperately goes about trying to gain its trust. This bit goes on quite some time, and will likely be more entertaining for dog-lovers than it was for me. Neville setting out meat for the dog each morning, watching from the windows as it sneaks by to eat it, then trying to call for it, only for the terrified dog to run away. This goes on seemingly for a few months. However this is a pretty bleak book so the outcome is somewhat expected, though I felt anticlimactically delivered. But then I do appreciate how Matheson doesn’t sap anything up; while Neville goes through harrowing experiences he never descends to maudlin theatrics. But then he also doesn’t dress up a bust of Caesar and play chess with it, a la Heston in The Omega Man.
Things really pick up in 1978 when Neville, now bigger and sporting a beard in true hermit fashion, comes across a woman one day, walking along the field outside his house in broad daylight. She’s a slim redhead, and Neville chases her down and caveman style forces her back to his house. Again, Matheson doesn’t sap things up: Neville has become so paranoid from his years of being alone that he distrusts the girl, who says her name is Ruth. Neville doesn’t believe her story of hiding from the vampires and losing her kids and husband, and further he even realizes to his surprise that he feels no passion for her. We’re told she’s thin, with the waifish build of a girl, and Nevile, celibate for years now, forces himself to even appreciate her. The bigger story though is that Neville suspects that Ruth really does have the vampire plague, and trying to catch her out on what he believes are her lies, before talking her into letting him take a slide of her blood to inspect for the vampire germ.
I’ll go into spoilers over the next three paragraphs, but given the fame of this novel I’m going to assume many of you have already read it. Well, it turns out Neville’s suspicions were correct; he checks Ruth’s blood and finds the germ in it, and moments later Ruth knocks him out and takes off. She leaves a note which explains that she is a vampire, but a sort of new bread – living vampires, as it were, and not the same as the truly dead ones (ie the ones who turn immediately to dust when staked). Over the years, while Neville’s been living like a hermit and staking every vampire he could find during the day, the “new breed” of vampires have started up their own society, and what’s more have developed a pill which allows them to become more normal, like going out in the day and whatnot. Ruth ends the note imploring Neville to leave, to go hide in the mountains, as he will soon be a target of Ruth’s people.
We flash forward again, this time to 1979, and Neville’s still home, having decided not to leave. One of the biggest problems I had with I Am Legend is the harried conclusion that follows. Neville literally stands in his living room and watches through a peephole as Ruth’s new breed of vampires show up one night and kill all the “dead” vampires, even the one Neville’s spent the entire novel hoping to kill himself. Then they come in after Neville, who refuses to fight back(!), and he gets shot and next thing you know we have a proto-Braveheart finale where Ruth visits a dying Neville, who is about to be publicly executed by her new breed of vampires. She tells Neville that her people are terrified of him and hate him, but she cares for him, and gives him a suicide pill or somesuch that will prevent him from experiencing the execution. The novel ends with Neville coming to the titular conclusion – that he, the odd man out in this new world, is now legend.
It’s easy of course to see I Am Legend from a COVID perspective, with all the talk of viruses, transmission, and vaccines. But I’d take it a step further; it occurred to me after I read the book that Ruth and her “new breed” of vampires, who need to regularly take a pill to prevent the virus, are the vaccinated, creating a new society in which frequent boosters are required for inclusion. And Neville, with his natural immunity, is the unvaccinated (or “pureblood,” per the recent term), eking out a hermit-like existence apart from them. The cleaving of society at the end of the novel could also be viewed as a wild prefigure of where we are headed; pureblood Neville cannot exist in this world of the new breed. I mean, imagine if an endless cycle of booster shots were to ultimately lead to crippling side effects, mass deaths, and weakened immune systems that needed the boosters to even function (a la the “pills” Ruth’s people need): a society of people more dead than alive, which is exactly how Ruth’s fellow post-vampires are depicted. Just imagine the hatred and jealousy such sufferers would feel for the few purebloods who remained unscathed. Like Ruth’s post-vampire society, they’d no doubt eagerly gather to watch the few purebloods be exterminated.
In closing, I’m glad I finally read I Am Legend, but I still confess without any shame that I much prefer The Omega Man. It just felt like there was more of a story here than we actually got, but to Matheson’s credit he takes a huge story and relates it on a personal level. Also I appreciated how fast-moving it was. Another thing I got a kick out of was how people in Matheson’s era were just so much more cultured and learned than today; Neville not only listens to classical throughout, but constantly refers to poems or myths. For example, when trying to catch that dog he thinks to himself, “Shades of Androcles,” which honestly is on the level of Jefferson Boone.