I Am Legend

Posted by : atcampbell | On : November 5, 2007

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Eight of us gathered at the North Village Library for this meeting. Our topic was I Am Legend, a classic 50s sf/horror novel by Richard Matheson. A plague has turned most of the people on Earth into vampire/zombie-like creatures, and our story follows the story of Robert Neville, who may well be the last human alive. Four of us had read Matheson before. All of us started I Am Legend, and six finished the book.

We thought this was an entertaining read. One person felt the book was a deliberate refutation of the “mono-man myth” of Heinlein/Campbell/Astounding stories so prevalent in the 50s, which argued that one man can change the world.  It was argued that Matheson’s work is more similar to other California-based writers of the 50s, including Ray Bradbury.

One person started the novel and found it got too depressing, since she could not see how Neville could survive. She also started to wonder whether everyone else was indeed a monster or if Neville was simply a crazy person killing normal people. She skipped to the end of the book and discovered several of Matheson’s short stories, which she enjoyed much more.  At least a couple of these stories were the basis for Twilight Zone episodes.  She found the stories to be atmospheric, efficiently written, and creepy, with tongue-in-cheek humor. She said that this is not her type of book, but Matheson definitely has good writing chops.

Several people commented that this book does a great job at telling a story about a guy being alone.  Neville accomplishes a great deal, and he’s an interesting enough character to keep us engaged.  We also appreciated how  the author was brave enough to let bleak things happen in the book, including unfortunate events regarding animals.

One person felt a particularly strong connection to the story since he lives alone, has a dog, and has other things in common with Neville. He also is a major Matheson fan from way back, and he commented on the wonderful prose, the effective characterization, and the delightful short fiction at the end of the book. At the urging of some members of the group, he gave a brief overview of Matheson’s writing career and how much of it was adapted to film and television.

Most of us thought the story worked well as a psychological study and as a metaphor.  We thought the scientific explanation of vampires was a cool idea, and particularly novel for the time it was written.

Our hard sf enthusiasts had issues with the scientific research Neville attempts to do at one point in the book. They wanted the answers to questions like “why did the mutation occur?” and “what caused the plague?” and “why did the vampires keep trying to contact Neville?”

With the Will Smith movie adapted from this book coming soon, we had a brief discussion of the prior movie versions, The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man. We also wondered whether Will Smith would be able to play such an introspective character.

We concluded with a discussion of related books. Neville Shute’s On the Beach was cited as a similarly downbeat novel from around the same time period. Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About to … [Die] was mentioned as a story about the last woman on Earth.

Overall this was a good discussion of a thought-provoking book. We are glad I Am Legend was brought back into print for new readers to discover.

After the meeting, we had a nice dinner at Fuddrucker’s.

—A. T. Campbell, III