Book Review: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
In I Am Legend, Robert Neville is the only man left fully alive five months after a virus spreads the Earth. It started turning people into vampires, who are hungry for the blood of the living, meaning that everyone in the planet even turned into a vampire or was killed by a vampire. By day Robert Neville hunts them, making stakes to force through their hearts as he enters their houses and kills them in their sleep (or technically comas) since they can’t bear the sunlight. At night they come to his house; the men yelling and calling to him, the women trying to entice him with their bodies, kept away only by the strings of garlic he hung up around the house. His moods frequently switch between determination to do something about the situation he is in, to study hard and work out what happened, and utter hopelessness where he drinks himself into a stupor for days on end in order to block out the calls of the vampires and the memories of his old life.
A high point for Robert is the day he discovers a non-vampired dog. He devotes his evenings (before the sun goes down) to try to win the trust of the dog but even once he convinces him to come into the house the dog is never really the same, and never takes Robert the way he hopes he will. His hopes of companionship are renewed when he sees a woman out in the sunlight and eventually brings her back to his house. Not knowing whether she is infected or not they slowly learn to trust each other; he takes her into his house overnight, even though he’s still very suspicious of her. She eventually lets him take her blood so he can test to see if she is infected, but the results of the test change everything.
I read this book because I had seen and enjoyed the I Am Legend film and I’m always interested to see how true to the book a film is. I’m glad that I’d seen the film first because it is nothing like the book. I found the book interesting, I think only because I couldn’t believe how different it was from the film. To be honest horror is not my favourite genre, and I was surprised that I’d liked the film so much, I did sometimes find the book I bit of a chore. I appreciate that the book is very well written and as Robert goes through all his different emotions you can sympathise with him and understand how and why he would be feeling the way he is and when you put yourself in his position you can see that Matheson has created a terrifying picture.
In the film, Robert Neville (Will Smith) has a dog right from the start who he talks to and treats as much like a human as possible. It makes him seem less hopeless than he appears in the book, although he still goes through the same mood swings. I feel disappointed that I was won over by Hollywood’s attempts to jazz up the book, making the high points higher and the low points lower, and the whole thing altogether more intense. The film shows Robert sending his family safely off Manhattan in order to fight the virus himself, a conscious decision given that he works with the FBI, whereas in the book he has to live with the horrifying reality that his family and friends have all been turned into vampires that he has to kill. These are epitomised in Ben Cortman, his next door neighbour and friend who, turned vampire, consistently taunts him, calling his name and reminding him of the life he used to have.
A interesting aspect of the book is Robert’s struggle with religion. To begin with he refers to God without thought, like we all do, I guess technically using God’s name in vain. As it goes on he finds himself understandably doubting God and you can see how he almost forces himself to continue believing. Every so often he says he finds a ‘desperate need to believe in a God’ but as he prays part of him knows that it’s futile. Increasingly he is looking to science for answers, learning as much as he can about what made everyone turn to vampires and why they act the way they do, rather than praying for some kind of salvation.
I would recommend this book to anyone that enjoys horror stories, but I wouldn’t recommend reading it on the basis of whether or not you liked the film, because they may as well be completely unconnected. If you’ve ever wanted a taste of what it’s like to be in complete despair and wondered what it would be like to be the only one left in the world, able to go anywhere you like, then read this book. While it is a horror story I wouldn’t describe it as scary or particularly gruesome, I think the sci-fi elements of the book come across stronger than the horror, although you do get that heart-stopping, stomach sinking moments synonymous with horror.