Something black and of the night had come crawling out of the Middle Ages. Something with no framework or credulity, something that had been consigned, fact and figure, to the pages of imaginative literature. Vampires were passé… or were they?
From the series of post-apocalyptic books that include Stephen King’s – The Stand, The Pesthouse, Oryx and Crake and The Hunger Games comes a story about a single survivor of a viral outbreak. Richard is the last man on earth – alone and isolated in his own house, hounded by night by vampires who gather in front of his house.
He has sealed himself inside, boarded up all the windows, setup an electric generator, put garlic and crucifixes around all entry points. He is alone – the only conversation he hears comes from his own thoughts and from one of the vampires, his old buddy, screaming at him every night to come out.
He battles the undead while trying to figure out what they are and how they came to be.
It’s an amazing book about the importance of coping, of never giving up, a struggle for survival when the future looks bleak.
Really, now, search your soul; lovie—is the vampire so bad?
All he does is drink blood.
Why, then, this unkind prejudice, this thoughtless bias? Why cannot the vampire live where he chooses? Why must he seek out hiding places where none can find him out? Why do you wish him destroyed? Ah, see, you have turned the poor guileless innocent into a haunted animal. He has no means of support, no measures for proper education, he has not the, voting franchise No wonder he is compelled to seek out a predatory nocturnal existence…
He is tormented by the memory of his dead wife returning to him after the infection started and the thought of him having to kill her (again) drives his hands to the bottle. He lives in drunken stupor for a while and then a new motivation springs up – to learn about the vampires and see what is fact and what is fiction.
So he reads up on bacteria, germs, way of spreading and he splits up the dead into two types: people who died of the disease and then came back as undead vampires and living vampires who enter a comatose-like state during the day when they are hiding.
On his daily runs outside for food and stakes, he kills all the vampires he can find, using different methods – stakes, slashing wrists, dragging them into the sun.
In his research attempts, he gets a microscope and he identifies the bacteria which causes the blood-thirst and the infection and realizes that the vampirism has two sides:
– a bacterial infection which causes the cells to auto-destroy if no blood is provided
– a psychological aspect which causes vampires to be afraid of garlic, crosses and walking over running water.
He is happy with his situation until one day he sees a dog.
He gathers fresh meat and milk and puts it on his doorstep waiting for the dog to return.
The dog comes back but he makes off with the meat before he can catch it. He repeats the procedure and sits patiently on the porch for the dog to return. He talks gently to the dog but does not make any moves as the animal is scared of him. Weeks pass and the dog gets to know him better and starts barking in recognition when he comes to eat. He is scruffy, injured, with a chewed-off ear and a bad leg.
When the dog stops coming, he is worried sick and goes to look for him.
The dog eventually returns but Richard can tell that he is sick now and without a vaccine, it will die.
He traps the dog and brings it inside. The dog is terrified, tries to dig a hole through the floor when night time comes and Richard puts it in a blanket and speaks soothingly to him to calm him down.
Days pass and the dog learns to trust him but it’s too late and it dies.
As he buries the dog, he realizes that it’s impossible to live in this world and keep having wild hopes for companionship or friendship. He is truly alone.
Years pass and one day he sees a red-haired woman in the fields. He is so surprised to see her that he shouts at her and when she tries to run away, he catches up with her and forcefully brings her down. Ruth – that was her name, was a tanned, slim, young-looking woman whose husband died a week ago in the neighboring town and she had been wandering aimlessly since then. He is mistrustful of her and eases up a little when he sees a cross around her neck. She is quite tanned but that uneasiness does not go away. He crushes some garlic and she rushes to the bathroom to throw up at the smell of it, blaming it on her weak stomach.
He asks for a blood sample and she wants to leave – but unfortunately the sun is going down and the outside vampires are starting to show up…
They eat and talk – she is curious – she wants to know everything about vampires but he keeps quiet on some of the discoveries he’s made. He falls asleep on the couch and wakes up confuses when he hears some noise, thinking that his wife returned. It was just Ruth, all dressed up, trying to sneak out. He asks her what she is doing – as there are still vampires there – and she does not respond – just gives him a hug.
He drags her then to the testing station and gets a drop of blood from her.
She was a vampire resistant to sunlight who was sent to spy on him – the last of his race, the killer of so many of her kind, including her husband.
She tells him that they are getting organized, they are forming a new society and in this society, there is no place for under-evolved vampires and humans. She tells him, if he values his life, to run away -go into the mountains and hide.
He stays there and a few months afterwards, cars come at night and suited vampires destroy “his” vampires and then come after him. He fights them off but soon he is wounded and taken captive. As he awaits his judgement and execution, Ruth pays him another visit and slips him some poison, so that he could die in his own terms.
The ending of the book is quite powerful. As wounded as he is, he gets up and looks out the window to a see of people – all mutated vampires – who see him and look up at him in awe and horror. This is when he realizes that normalcy is declared by the majority and he is no longer normal. He is the last of his kind, an abomination in their eyes – the stuff that stories and fables come from.
I am Legend.
About the Author
Richard Burton Matheson
February 20, 1926 – June 23, 2013
Richard Matheson was an American author and screenwriter, primarily in the fantasy, horror, and science fiction genres. He may be known best as the author of I Am Legend, a 1954 horror novel that has been adapted for the screen three times (filmed as The Last Man on Earth in 1964, The Omega Man in 1971, and I Am Legend in 2007), although six more of his novels or short stories have been adapted as major motion pictures: The Shrinking Man, Hell House, What Dreams May Come, Bid Time Return (filmed as Somewhere in Time), A Stir of Echoes and Button, Button.
Matheson, in a 2007 interview with CinemaSpy:
“I think we’re yearning for something beyond the every day. And I will tell you I don’t believe in the supernatural, I believe in the supernormal. To me there is nothing that goes against nature. If it seems incomprehensible, it’s only because we haven’t been able to understand it yet.”
And in an interview in Cemetery Dance, Matheson said he usually identified with his main characters to the point of becoming them:
Pretty much the main character is always me. The man in I Am Legend is me. The man in The Shrinking Man, that’s me. Stir Of Echos, that’s me. What Dreams May Come, me. … When I’m writing, especially when I’m writing in first person, I don’t think about the characterization, or how they are going to express themselves, I just express my own approach to these things. I think most writers can never divorce themselves from their private lives and personas; they are the ones that are writing. And the more they remove themselves from their own persona, the more, perhaps, mechanical the work becomes.
In another interview, Matheson explained where the idea for I Am Legend came from:
The idea for I Am Legend came to me when I was about 16. I went to see Dracula and the thought occurred that, if one vampire was scary, a world filled with vampires would really be scary. I did not write the book until 1952. We lived in Gardena, California and I set the story there, using our house as Neville’s house. I think that ascribing metaphors to a book after it is written is silly. My son Richard provided a much more likely one- that it was prophetic because of AIDS. I don’t think the book means anything more than it is: the story of a man trying to survive in a world of vampires.
Matheson was inducted in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010, and was a winner of both the Bram Stoker Award and World fantasy Awards, both for Lifetime Achievement.