I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Genre: Horror/Developmental Zombies/Post-Apocalypse/Science Fiction
Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars
Summary: A strange disease has taken over and left the world full of blood-thirsty killers and empty of humans. Except for one. Robert Neville is somehow immune and must battle vampires, terrible isolation, and despair on a journey of survival. But maybe just surviving isn’t enough. While he longs for companionship, he dedicates himself to finding the cause of the disease and hopefully an antidote that can save those who are still left alive.
I Am Legend is a fantastic read. I am super into zombies right now and after John Green listed this book as number one in his top five favorite zombie apocalypses, I figured it was a must read. Also, I’ve never seen the movie of this same name with Will Smith so I can’t give any opinion on comparing the two – although I can’t imagine that movie is like the book very much at all.
Having had very limited knowledge of this story, it did surprise me that the book was actually not about zombies at all, but rather vampires. It definitely has all the qualities of a zombie apocalypse, but yeah…vampire apocalypse! Weird right? Because usually vampires don’t take over the world and cause the collapse of society, but it’s cool. Vampires are just zombies with good press, right?
Anyway, the book is about the life of a man named Robert Neville. He’s a perfectly ordinary dude – works at a plant, has a wife and a kid and a house. Through various flashbacks we learn that there was some sort of war and probably a nuclear bomb or twelve was dropped. The weather changed, crazy dust storms happened almost daily, and people started getting mysteriously ill. And then dying. And then getting back up again to suck blood! Very zombie-like.
When we meet Robert, this has been going on for nine months already. He has fortified his house entirely to make it impossible for the vampires to get in at him, he has a huge freezer and stockpile of food, a generator for electricity, an impressive classical music collection, a ton of booze…basically everything he needs to survive the apocalypse. Of course, the one huge thing that’s missing is another human being. His wife and daughter both didn’t make it. It turns out Robert didn’t survive by cunning or preparation, but because he is immune to the vampiric disease. At one point he is even bitten by a vampire and it has no effect on him. The vampires would certainly kill him and drain his blood if they caught him, but he can never be one of them.
Much of this book is about loneliness and isolation. Robert is so utterly alone in a world that is suddenly upside down and full of walking dead bent on his destruction. He forgets the sound of his own voice, goes about monotonous days in silence with very little hope of ever finding another human being like himself. In the beginning he struggles a lot with sexual frustration, especially since the female vampires keep ripping their clothes off and cat-calling him to try to entice him from his house and to his death at night. This seems pretty on par for vampires with the whole sex thing that has surrounded them since Dracula. But eventually that fades for Robert and he dreams about finding anyone – a man, a woman, a child, it wouldn’t matter because it wasn’t anything to do with sex anymore he just wanted someone to talk to, to touch, to hold on to. Someone to prove that he was still alive and he wasn’t alone.
Again, Robert dreams about these things, but as they are unlikely he carries on with his business. The really good thing about vampires as opposed to zombies is that vampires cannot go outside during the day. So when it’s daylight, Robert is free to get in his car and drive around for supplies without any fear of attack at all. One of the most terrifying things about zombies is definitely that they never stop. They don’t fear daylight, they don’t fear anything, they don’t get tired, they just keep coming until they catch you or you manage to stop them with the old destroying the brain trick. Vampires on the other hand, give you all the time during the day to do whatever you want and you don’t have to worry about it.
That being said, one of the scariest parts of the book happens quite near the beginning. Robert has been making wooden stakes to drive through the vampires hearts – following the legend – and it does indeed prove to kill the vampires. But making stakes is a huge pain in the ass and he hates it. So he decides to experiment with new ways of killing them. He goes into a house where a woman with the disease is in her daytime coma. He drags her out of the house into the sunlight where she suffers and dies. He drives away, does some more errands, and then realizes he should have brought the woman’s body with him to ascertain that she didn’t rise from the dead come nightfall.
He checks his watch and notes that is only 3pm, so he has plenty of time before sunset. He doesn’t remember exactly where the woman’s house was since he was kind of in a frenzy so he drives all around looking for it. Finally he finds it, gets her body, and checks his watch. He notes that it is only 3pm, so…. And then the sentence peters out at the same moment that both Robert and I realize with a stomach-wrenching panic that his watch has stopped. He has no idea what time it is and the vampires are coming for him! He races back to his house, but it’s too late – they’re all there on the lawn waiting for him.
Scary!! While most of the book is about Robert’s internal struggle with himself, his past, and his isolation – there are definitely legitimately scary scenes that made me love this book.
After almost a year alone, Robert then decides he’s tired of just going about this business like it doesn’t mean anything and find out why all this happened and what caused it. Going off a few things he heard before the world fell to the disease, he starts doing research. He reads everything he can about blood and biology. He gets a microscope so he can examine and vampire’s blood. He discovers that it’s not really legend or superstition at all – but a bacteria. It’s spread not just from vampire to vampire, but also just in the air – through the dust storms. This again makes this apocalypse scary because you can avoid vampires, but still end up becoming one.
I love this. Again, Robert is just this Average Joe who works at a plant, but he studies, he teaches himself and becomes as close to an expert on the disease, on blood, on how it progresses as he can. Anyone can understand science if they apply themselves and want to learn! Armed with this new information he discovers why they hate the smell of garlic, that he doesn’t actually need to put a stake through their heart, but injure them enough that enough oxygen can get into their body to kill the disease. Lot of fake science in this book of course – as in all books that explain vampires and zombies through science, but I can dig it. It also talks about anathema which luckily Scott already taught us all about in Peeps. For awhile Robert couldn’t figure out how fear of cross could have anything to do with a disease, but then realized it was just leftover religious fervor. That a vampire who had been a Jew didn’t fear a cross at all.
The end was a major twist from me and really pretty epic. When the world was turned upside down, Robert thought he was the only survivor, but it turns out he was really just being left behind in a world he couldn’t keep up with – and due to his immunity could never be a part of. He can’t rejoin the world and he can’t go back to the way things were – he’s the last of his kind and the very picture of being alone. The last line is goosebumpy.
Definitely recommend this book to all zombie/vampire fans and it definitely gives a cool insight into the human condition as well and how people thrive in groups, not alone.