Apr 18

Book Review: I Am Legend

I am LegendI am Legend by Richard Matheson

The main problem with reading classic literature of the sort which has influenced an entire genre is that the most groundbreaking and creative aspects seem trite and derivative. I chose this because, as a novella, it consists of fewer hours than a full novel, and because it’s considered a classic. Since I hadn’t seen the movie, I didn’t know much about what the story was about (except a non-vampire in a world of vampires) and although I knew there was some sort of “twist” ending, I wasn’t sure what it was.

Robert Neville is the uninfected protagonist, the lone human who is plagued by vampires at night. The white-faced vampires plead with him to come out of his house so that they can drink his blood. By day he hunts them, stabbing stakes in their hearts. He’s got a fortress that would make any libertarian proud. He has boarded-up windows, generators, and a supply of canned and frozen foods. He listens to classical music constantly, to drown out the moans and pleading of the undead, and he drinks whiskey constantly to drown out his sorrowful memories.

One of the disadvantages of an audiobook is that you can’t stop and flip it over to find out information, such as who wrote it, or when it was published. It’s set in 1975, but even without looking up the publication date (just checked–Google says 1954) I could tell that it was written well before 1975. A big tip off was that Neville had a solid middle-class job, yet didn’t have a car. I can’t conceive of someone not having a car in Los Angeles without that defining their existence. Not having a car in Los Angeles is like not having a boat if you live in a swamp.

More telling for me was the way in which the gender roles were presented. Reading older literature is like having a window on the past. Neville lives in a 1975 that has never seen women’s lib. When his wife dies, he stops cleaning his house, showering, etc. I guess back in the 50’s, a man left such civilized niceties as “soap” and “razors” to the womenfolk, never figuring that these are skills he might accomplish on his own.

The women are presented as predominantly vessels of love and desire. His late wife exists only as a vehicle for Neville’s love and sorrow. Her reactions to the dust storms and the plague aren’t even hinted at, nor are those of her daughter. The female vampires he kills and sometimes experiments on are also mere objects to him, and he blames them for the lust which torments him. (How much more tragic when the apocalypse happens in the days before varied and plentiful porn!)

Neville is not a nice guy. He’s a serial killer who loves to prey on the helpless. He hates everyone and everything, including himself. That, at least, I could empathize with. I hated him too. At one point, he sees a stray dog that somehow survived the vampire sickness, and his clumsy attempts to woo the dog give him some human appeal, but not enough to make up for the rest of his behavior. I didn’t feel sorry for him, or root for him. Was I supposed to?

I knew from the first word to the last that I was never intended to be the target reader for this novel. Literature from other centuries always makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. It’s one thing if the protagonist has a narrow worldview, but when the author doesn’t seem to understand anyone outside his narrow demographic (or care that they don’t), I feel unhappy. I believe if you want to write about people, you have to try to understand people who don’t have the same skin color and plumbing you do. Modern authors seem to take this more seriously.  For example, because brown people didn’t exist before 1970 (or so television has told me) all of the people in this story are white. Los Angeles without Hispanic culture feels as authentic as Seattle without rain.

I imagine the target reader for this novella was a SF fan (presumed male) back in the 50s, who probably would have loved the idea of holing up in his modest ranch house (with all the modern conveniences!), venturing out like a diurnal VanHelsing to prey on helpless, vampiric women.

Would the target reader have seen his behavior as noble? Would they have had a shocking twist as they realized, perhaps late in the novella, that his behavior was abhorrent? I rolled my eyes that the only woman allowed to speak has to be a sex-object. Would the target reader have been oblivious to the fact that the woman he meets just happens to be young, happens to be pretty, happens to be single, happens to be white, happens to be wearing a dress?  When she confesses her love for him, I felt disgusted. She was almost a real character before the author made her do that. Really? This murderer chases her down, hits her, kidnaps her, and then interrogates her in a threatening manner, and she still falls for him in less than 24 hours? I cry shenanigans. That’s not a person, that’s a fantasy.

I got this from audible, and while the narrator’s version of Neville wasn’t bad (if a bit over-dramatic for my taste) I HATED how he did the women’s voices. Note to anyone who does voice acting: reading anyone’s part in a falsetto says “I feel nothing but contempt for this person.” Reading all the women’s voices in a falsetto makes me furious.

I recommend this novella for English classes and discussion groups where people want to talk about society and morality and the like. It’s pretty dark and depressing, so I don’t recommend it for people who are hoping for hope and romance.

View all my reviews

3 comments

    • Zargon on April 19, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    Books like this are self-insert fan fiction published before we had that term and the associated stigma. When you put it in that context it is far more understandable.

    On a side note, “The Last Man on Earth” starring Vincent Price was a MUCH better film adaptation of this book than that Will Smith drivel.

    • Beth on April 20, 2012 at 9:28 am

    I thought the Will Smith drivel was pretty good. It certainly updated some of the hideously out of touch attitudes your review mentions. Also it does a better job of humanizing him. Although I suppose there is some overlap in those two things.

    • John on May 9, 2012 at 11:55 am

    I agree with your review. The protagonist is indeed not a sympathetic character — and that was the point the author stressed in the end. He was a monster who was killing off a new civilization that was more human than he originally thought.

    I also think the book serves as an allegory for race relations and the changing demographics of the time (think about it, it took place in once lily-white Compton). So race is definitely a factor in this tale.

    The Will Smith version, btw, was drivel, as Zargon stated earlier.

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