I AM LEGEND
Obviously, the book was better than the movie, but that bar was pretty low.
I enjoyed I Am Legend as a classic bleak future story in the vein of Alas Babylon or Brave New World, the “Everything is Worse Now” oeuvre. I can definitely see how it heavily influenced the modern post-apocalyptic (fill in the blank) genre. Neville spends a good portion of the first act bouncing between drunken depression and developing new life skills. He’s isolated and trying to piece a life together from the remnants of a world that’s left him behind. Several of the scenes of Neville doing day-to-day tasks reminded me of The Stand – the emphasis on how much harder Neville has to work just to accomplish daily tasks people in comfortable modernity take for granted – getting food, getting clean water, transportation. I thought this was handled deftly without dragging the plot down.
It did feel like the author’s approach to the vampire mythology was a bit scattered. If Matheson was going to state that the vampire-like condition of the infected was disease-based, he should have stuck with plot details attached to that line of thinking. The vampires responding negatively to daylight is one thing. Matheson could explain that away as ultraviolet/infrared light interacting with the infected characters’ changed biology. Having the infected respond to garlic and crosses and other traditional anti-vampire measures felt muddled. The explanations for their doing so, like the “hysterical blindness,” associated with crosses and sunlight, felt pretty weak in terms of justification. It felt like he was trying to be too clever and needed an editor to tell him, “Winnow your ideas, sir.” It was distracting and felt weaker than the rest of the plot.
Between this plot thread and the mentions of “yellow journalism,” I think Matheson was trying to present a theme on legends and monsters and how they’re born from fear and paranoia. Just as irresponsible journalists spread hysterical dread of vampires towards the end of the plague, the infected spread stories amongst themselves regarding Neville’s cruelty and violence. Even though I knew it was coming (dang it, Will Smith), I enjoyed this twist of Neville finding out that he is considered the monster in this new evolved, infected society. He has lost all of the things that made him human (his wife, his daughter) and has become the very thing he fears and fights – a monster.
This separates I Am Legend from most works in the vampire/zombies survival genre. Protagonists in these stories suffer from self-loathing, but generally related to failing to protect their dead loved ones or other human survivors. Generally, horror authors do not make protagonists question whether they should be killing vampires/zombies. This moment of self-doubt only comes to Neville in the last chapter, which doesn’t give him much time to learn or grow, but it’s still an interesting query to press on the character.
Overall, I like post-apocalyptic works that a little less focused on one character, like The Stand or Maze Runner or World War Z. But I definitely see the merits of this novel, in terms of storytelling and originality of plot.