“What would a Mohammedan vampire do if faced with a cross?”
~~ Richard Matheson, I Am Legend ~~
Richard Matheson`s sad death kick started my memory banks into rumination mode on his magnum opus, I Am Legend; an everyday story of vampire folk locking horns with the last man on Earth……Or is he?
Robert Neville is the last man on Earth, or, to put it in proper perspective, the last uninfected man on Earth: everyone else succumbed to a plague which wiped out the whole of humanity except Robert; but they did not stay dead, but returned to a kind of half-life as vampires. They thirst for Robert`s blood: he goes about his business during the hours of sunlight, fortifying his home and sharpening stakes for his day job of vampire slaying. But there`s never enough hours in the day, and never enough stakes. They gather outside his house at night, calling him to come out. Robert has time on his hands: he researches the cause and effect of the virus; it renews his life and gives it meaning once again. Then he is suddenly close to unlocking the greatest secret that had been stubbornly hidden from him; he may not be the last human after all.
Written in 1954, I Am Legend has itself, attained the patina of legend: it`s influence on literature and the cinema has been truly immense; yet it has never received even a half adequate interpretation on the big screen, despite several attempts. Every director and screenwriter wants to tinker, adapt, re-imagine and present their own vision – not Matheson`s. Big screen adaptions have invariably been pale, wraith-like creatures, gutted of meaning and message.
“The foraging for food and water, the struggle for life in a world without masters, housed in a body that man had made dependent upon itself……And suddenly he thought, I`m the abnormal one now. Normalcy was a majority concept, the standard of many and not the standard of just one man.”
The power and integrity of a story lies in it`s life force, it`s ageless longevity: the strength of it`s words, meaning and relevance to the modern reader enables it to stand the test of time. I Am Legend explores the dark side of human emotion, human isolation, the will to survive against all the odds at any cost. For Neville, modern technology has gone; he inhabits a zone where time has ceased to exist as we know it. He lives in a back to basics world which will never date his tale for us, because the future has come and gone. Neville has mental issues which more often than not, push his problems with vampires onto the back burner; he`s on his own and lives a monotonous existence of routine in order to prevent himself losing his sanity. Much of the novel is taken up with his monologues; trying to keep himself mentally alert and in the present; the past is a foreign country that holds pain and trauma.
“Alright, little boy, he tried kidding himself, calm down. Santa Claus is coming to town with all the nice answers. No longer will you be a weird Robinson Crusoe, imprisoned on an island of night surrounded by oceans of death.”
Neville stumbles across a dog one day on his travels; it offers him a worthwhile substitute for the human companionship he craves; but he discovers the mutt is infected, and it dies. But it provides him with a revelation – the dog died. The dog which was infected by the vampire virus has expired; this meant that vampires were not immortal, but a highly perishable race which could be defeated. The final third of the book is particularly haunting in it`s treatment of hope, isolation, and what is normal. His eventual encounter with uber-vampires which have high reasoning capabilities and see Neville as a murderer; even if it was of the ordinary common or garden variety of vampires, which existed almost on pure instinct, with minimal mental capabilities, ask of him – and us – what is normal. In a world of vampires, isn`t his reasoning that he is the final bastion of normalcy a false premise: he is the one who is not normal.
The amazing fact about the novel is that it is almost entirely sustained on the shoulders of one character: he is himself alone, without companionship, mutual discussion or physical interaction with another human being. The real horror contained in the book is not the vampires, but the dread of being alone; that all the totems of culture are ephemeral; a fragile, perishable veil of deceit held in place by social forces, that disappear as soon as society collapses. We need structure in our lives to give meaning, and answers to our existence – even if those answers are not the right ones. Neville`s final revelation that he is considered the real monster in this new world, strikes home like an Olympic shot put crashing through the patio window and landing loudly in your bowl of cornflakes on a quiet, sunny Sunday morning.
Robert Neville`s vaunted reputation as a mass killer of the undead had preceded him among the new breed of thinking vampires: to them, he stood for barbarity…………Dare I say it – inhumanity. He had become Legend. Unlike the movies, the novel gives us Robert Neville as an ordinary guy trying to make it in a world he no longer recognizes; he`s not a military man, a scientist or a mover and shaker. He becomes a different man, forced by circumstances to understand what had once been a mystery to him; how things work; cause and effect, and observation and scientific experimentation. Matheson shows the irrationality of racial issues, of social outcasts and perceptions of minorities which are perceived as not being “one of us”, and so must be either expelled, or destroyed.
” I am legend.”
Like Emily Bronte`s Wuthering Heights, cinema will continue to attempt to bring the story to the screen, but it will only ever be a gossamer thread, of a glimmer, of what is written on the page. I Am Legend is an essential classic of the written word which defies classification or pigeonholing. It is a masterpiece which should be on everyone`s bookshelf.