In 1954, one of the most influential horror authors of the 20th century, Richard Matheson, published what is probably his most important and certainly best-known work: the science fiction/horror novella I Am Legend. It is the story of Robert Neville, a white collar man of no particular distinction who finds himself the last living human being after a terrible pandemic, aided by the devastation caused by a hinted-at nuclear conflict, has turned the rest of humanity into nocturnal hunters feeding on mammal blood and capable of surviving death and indeed returning from the dead. In short, they are vampires, and every night they surround Neville’s barricaded home and try to kill the last man on earth.
In I Am Legend, Matheson upended the rules for vampire fiction, largely by giving his creatures a rigorously scientific basis: vampirism is caused by a bacteria that increases UV sensitivity, engenders an allergy to garlic, and all sorts of plausibly odd physical reactions that, in an age before modern medical knowledge, would have seemed like the paranormal. This was all communicated to the reader through the figure of Neville, who we first meet about eight months after the pandemic wiped out the population of Los Angeles, including Neville’s wife and daughter. He is just an average man, but an average man with far too much time on his hands, and this drives him to spend most of his days working on the only question that still matters to him: what is vampirism and can it be cured? So we follow him as he forms hypotheses, makes wild and ill-informed guesses that he slowly whittles into a working theory, and figures out too late what the symptomology of the disease is, beyond his extremely limited experience on the receiving end of vampiric bloodlust.
I Am Legend is not a flawless book, but it one of the more intelligent examples of its genre. There are three primary ways in which the story is exceptional: first is its rigorous but entirely readable approach to the science of horror, a sea-change in the genre that could only have come in the back half of the 20th century; second is its unwavering focus on Neville’s psychology, primarily as it relates to sexual matters (at the book’s start, he is obsessed with the vampire women who try to entice him out of his home by, apparently, stripping; by its end, he is essentially a monk, although almost all of his experiments are conducted on female vampires); third and I think most interestingly, and here I am going to spoil the end of the book, so skip to the next paragraph if you’d like, the story suggests that Neville, the last human, has become the legendary monster that vampires have been for so many centuries (thus the title, which only begins to make sense in the second-to-last paragraph. It’s brilliant). He is the outsider who stalks and kills the innocents in their sleep, the evil creature of myth – there is a half-vampire society that has been working for a cure and growing increasingly frightened of the invisible killer of the daylight. Without even seeming to try very hard, Matheson tosses the whole book on its head and knocks out the foundations of the notion that some things are monsters and some things are not.
The book has now been filmed in three major incarnations, and knowing the commercial film industry as we do, it shouldn’t come as as surprise that these three primary threads are essentially ignored in every one of those adaptations. Which is not to say that the films are all wastes: there is something compelling about every one of them. But those things are decidedly not the things that are compelling in the book.