|Vintage Pulp||Mar 20 2020|
Hmph. She didn't crumble to dust. Guess you weren't a vampire after all. Sorry, honey.
You may remember we started on a set of Richard Matheson books several months ago, long before we were thinking about COVID-19, and I Am Legend was always third on the list. There are so many books and stories about humanity being wiped out by flus and viruses. We thought this was one of them. We don't know why, but that was our assumption. The book, though, is actually about vampires. The novel first appeared in 1954, and the Corgi Books edition you see here was published in 1960. The story follows the day-to-day—and night-to-night—existence of man named Robert Neville who lives in a Los Angeles house, from which he kills vampires and forages for food by sunlight, but to which he must retreat every sunset lest he be consumed by rampaging bloodsuckers. He might be the last man on Earth, but how can he know? He's basically tethered to his house as far as a tank of gas can carry him—half to go someplace, half to get back. In that radius he's seen nothing but desolation and vampires.
Most of the narrative deals with him trying to decipher vampire biology as a way to cure or kill them. Everything is covered, from why they hate crosses to why wooden stakes kill them, and the idea of a virus is actually touched upon as a cause of their condition, which is perhaps where we got our mistaken ideas about the book. The science is interesting, but the point is terror and isolation, as the main character's survival is complicated by his occasional bouts of carelessness and despair. Setting aside the usual 1950s social attitudes that don't strike harmonious chords today, the book is effective, and, in parts, legitimately scary. The concept resulted in four film adaptations—1964's The Last Man on Earth, 1971's The Omega Man, and 2007's I Am Legend and I Am Omega. When a book is that kind of cinematic gold mine, you expect it to be good, and it is. We'd even call it a horror monument.