I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

I’ve always loved Richard Matheson’s work. He was writing genuinely good scary stuff back when everyone else equated “scary” with “juvenile, stupid monsters”.  This is the first time I had actually read this novella, though. I did see the movie starring Will Smith, which was excellent. But now, I’ve got Will Smith stuck in my head while I’m reading the story, and in many ways, I preferred the movie version.

Don’t get me wrong – I did appreciate that Matheson’s Robert Neville was a more nuanced guy than the average horror story protagonist, but every time Matheson mentioned the guy’s “blond hair” it threw me out of the story, because the whole time I was imagining Will Smith! Nevertheless, there was a lot here that I admired about Matheson’s take on this “the last man on Earth” story.

For one, I can totally see how, after several hair-raising months (years?) of dealing with these “things”, you would turn to drinking. A LOT of drinking, in his case.  I thought all that was both realistic and understandable. And, even though it is probably realistic, I really did not like how Neville kept obsessing over the female vampires. Has nobody told this guy about the wonders of masturbation?

Then again, this was written in the Fifties, so the answer is NO. And that’s why homeboy was half out of his mind with all those “forbidden desires.” Sheesh.

However, between the guy’s generally cranky demeanor, and all these other issues, I thought Neville was not a very sympathetic character. Interesting. Realistic. But not somebody I was rooting for.

Another thing, when I first see Robert Neville trying to figure out the nature of his vampire/zombies, I actually felt a little impatient.  Come on, man — Everybody knows what causes vampires/zombies, right?

But then I remembered. Everybody did NOT know about them back in the Fifties!

So, Matheson was kind of feeling his way around in the dark on that one. Interesting that he hit on the virus idea, though. And unlike some people, I liked the idea of the pathogen being spread across the country by dust storms. For one thing, it gave the setting more of an apocalyptic feel, plus it was a nice, fresh idea with visual appeal. I imagined these huge, brown dust storms blowing through a desolate and decayed Los Angeles. Cool.

I liked how Matheson chronicled Neville’s daily existence. It gave me lots of good ideas to use for when the zombie apocalypse really happens. I also liked how, once he sees, and then captures, the woman he then spends a lot of time stewing in paranoia and distrust. That felt realistic, too. After being alone for so long, he was bound to be suspicious of anything new that looked too good to be true.

The only thing that didn’t ring true in this story was the ending. Frankly, I did not get the reasoning behind why they felt they had to kill him. It made no sense to me. The guy was immune to the virus AND he managed to survive all this time on his own. Give the guy a medal, or at the very least, EXPERIMENT on him to find out his secrets! But, kill him? Bleh.

I also felt sorry for the way the so-called humans killed off Neville’s private pain-in-the-ass, Ben Cortman.

Anyway, I still love Matheson, and I think this story has a lot to offer us horror geeks. If for no other reason than to see the origins of so many future vampire/zombie story lines.

Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. New York: Tor, 2007. Print.

2 thoughts on “I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson”

  1. Neville’s character was one of the biggest flaws of the story. I also felt he was rather unlikable and unbelievable. A good horror story should have a protagonist that the reader cares about. We readers need to want them to survive and at several points in the story I wanted him to walk out into the waiting vampires. I didn’t feel the anxiety about his predicament or his struggles with loneliness that would have made this tale truly horrific.

    The ending was a let down. I also wondered why they didn’t experiment on him to discover how he was immune. I would have rather seen him go down in a blaze of glory at his house than the weak impending execution finish. Still, I did enjoy Matheson’s clean writing style. The descriptions were vivid but not overdone. The vampires had little description regarding their physical appearance, which I thought was a brilliant move. Then the reader could fill in the version in their own heads that frightens them the most.

    I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on horror works.


  2. I liked Neville! I liked hating Neville.

    Gwen,Vanessa! He had to die!

    He was the monster in their world. When someone is coming to your house and killing your men and stealing your women, and you live on the frontier of a new world you don’t have time to experiment on him.

    That ending, seeing him not die as a hero in a blaze of glory, but executed for his monstrous behavior was absolutely called for. Neville is forced to look at his actions and see himself as not the normal one, but the minority and he’s forced to do this by the woman who is in power (which is quite progressive, I think from a straight white guy in the 1950’s).

    The weaker ending of 2007 I Am Legend, is the one where Will Smith is prevented from getting this realization.


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