I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, 1954
Published by Orion Books
First line: “On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.”
Book Rx: A book that challenges your thinking on what’s normal, and why. Better yet, it has vampires in it.
I put down the book abruptly. I was in between Chapters 4 and 5, and Robert Neville had just realized his watch had stopped. I had already watched the movie (the version with Will Smith, which I like). The afternoon was bright outside, and next to me on the couch my husband kept on playing his NBA game on the PS3, nonplussed. “What’s wrong?” I remember him asking. I could feel my heart pounding, fast. “I’m scared,” I replied.
That Matheson manages to scare in broad daylight is testament to the quality of his storytelling. Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend’ pulls you in and holds fast. The book is about Robert Neville, sole survivor of a disease that turned everyone else to vampires. His wife, daughter, and neighbor Ben Cortman (who, in vampire form, seems to relish tormenting Robert on a nightly basis by camping outside his house) have succumbed to the disease and are either dead or undead.
Robert is dedicated to finding the cause and cure for the disease, and had established a regular routine: eating breakfast, making sure his car was in good condition, burning bodies, gathering ‘subjects’ for experiments, fixing his house barricade, and drinking. There are some interruptions: a poor dog that wanders by (unlike the movie, the dog wasn’t with him from the start — but both versions are just as heartbreaking), Robert losing track of time as the day turned to night, the possibility of another survivor.
What I like best about ‘I Am Legend’ is how Matheson forces us, over the course of the novel, to think about the power of perspective and majority rule. Who is the hunter and the hunted? Following that, what dictates our sense of right and wrong? Matheson prompts us to think about this early on in the story, as Robert argues with himself in a drunken haze:
“Vampires are prejudiced against. The key of minority prejudice is this: They are loathed because they are feared. […]
At one time, the Dark and Middle Ages, to be succinct, the vampire’s power was great, the fear of him tremendous. He was anathema and still remains anathema. Society hates him without ration.
But are his needs any more shocking than the needs of other animals and men? Are his deeds more outrageous than the deeds of the parent who drained the spirit from his child? The vampire may foster quickened heartbeats and levitated hair. But is he worse than the parent who gave to society a neurotic child who became a politician? Is he worse than the manufacturer who set up belated foundations with the money he made by handing bombs and guns to suicidal nationalists? […] Is he worse, then, than the publisher who filled ubiquitous racks with lust and death wishes? Really, now, search your soul, lovie — is the vampire so bad?
All he does is drink blood.”