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Sunday, December 6, 2009

I Am Legend, The Novel

I Am Legend
by Richard Matheson
ISBN: 978-0-7653-5715-1

I picked up the Tor version of this classic book, small format, and it contains the added bonus of including an additional 10 short stories by Matheson (I won't be covering the additional stories at this time). Funny thing is, nowhere at all does it indicate that the extra stories are included, and a quick look at the contents page makes it initially appear as if it is one story in eleven chapters instead of eleven stories. Regarding the cover, it capitalizes on the most recent film with a picture of Will Smith in the foreground and a gloomy New York in the background. Great cover, problem is the novel inside takes place in Los Angeles, and the main character, Robert Neville, is of English-Germanic descent with bright blue eyes. Oh well.

I thought the novel itself was fantastic, so much more than a zombie horde story. Incidentally, as I understand it, 'I Am Legend' is considered the first zombie horde apocalypse story, and George Romero has been quoted as saying he read Matheson's book, stole the idea for his own story, and 'Night of the Living Dead' was born. While Romero's creatures are zombies, Matheson's are actually vampires with some zombie-like characteristics. While an essential element of the story, the vampires really aren't the focus.

The novel is really about the last man on earth and what dealing with that knowledge entails, on an emotional and psychological level, as well as on the physical level of dealing with the vampire menace. It is a dark ride through a mindscape of hope, despair, anger, fear, doubt, loneliness, lust, patience, and foolhardiness. It is also contains a subtle social statement on racism and isolation.

In a nutshell, our hero, Robert Neville, is the last man alive on earth after a disease that causes vampirism wipes out the human race. He may be the last man, but he is not alone. Every night he must hole up in his house-turned-fortress and resist the siege of the vampire horde. Among the horde is an old friend of his whose constant wailing of "Come out, Neville" drives our hero to the edge more than once. Driven to the brink of his sanity, Neville decides to try to find a cure for the disease that has ravaged mankind.

There were many outstanding parts in the book, but I'll mention just a couple.

Among the most chilling elements for me were the female members of the vampire horde and their attempts to lure Neville out of his house each night by disrobing and exposing themselves, and his torment at feeling lustful attraction for the vile creatures who were the cause of his lonely isolation.

One of the most emotionally touching parts of the book was the chapter about Neville and the dog. I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't read it, but I must say it was a very realistic exploration of loneliness, hope, and grief.

If I were to select one minor nit to pick, I would have to say, Matheson certainly loves the word 'palsied'.

I give this book the proverbial 'two-thumbs-up', and if you're into the whole zombie apocalypse thing, or if you like psychological thrillers, then this book is essential reading for you.

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