I had a dilemma as whether to include this book or not in my 25 Books list. You see I didn’t actually read this, I listened to an audio book version of it. An abridged version as broadcast on Radio 7. However since I’m lagging seriously on my books (I should be onto book 5 or 6 by now) I’m allowing it. After all it is a book and I spent the time to “read” (i.e. listen to it). But I’m adding a rule that I can have a couple of audio books.
By the way on that whole “I’m way behind” thing look for an upcoming blog post, hopefully later today.
Anyway to this book.
I first became aware of “I am Legend” in the credits to the 1971 movie “The Omega Man”. The movie, based fairly loosely on the book, is about a man living alone in a world devastated by a world-wide plague that killed 95% of the population and left the remaining few as pale-skinned… well what they are is an interesting point but let’s just say they can only come out at night and they’re no longer quite human, and definitely not friendly.
Anyhow I enjoyed the film – though it was a bit dated – and always intended one day to go back to the book. I intended this even more after the recent Will Smith remake of the film – which I’ve not yet seen. And now I finally have read/listened to the book.
I enjoyed it but it wasn’t the big step up from the movie that I thought it might be. It was better in some ways but less satisfying in others.
This kind of story – last man left alive – has always appealed to me, both as a reader and a writer. In fact I did, during Eurofiction, write a story that was compared by the judges to I am Legend. It was one of my two highest scoring stories but not one I was particularly proud of. I think the appeal – which is obviously not unique to me – is that one can easily imagine oneself as alone in the world. Being alone aside from hostile not-quite-human creatures can easily become a metaphor for “No-one really gets me, I feel as if I’m all alone”.
The book was written in 1954 and it betrays its era in a couple of ways, notably its handling of sex. It’s actually quite coy on details to a modern eye/ear whilst maintaining a tone that suggests it knows it’s being shocking – which I guess it would have been. At times it felt like what I imagine an old-fashioned bodice-ripper would be like – lots of “heat rising in his loins” and so on. There’s a discussion of Neville’s frustrated desires, but absolutely no mention, nor even implication, of masturbation as a release.
One thing it does, which I imagine was fairly new in 1954 but has become almost a cliche since, is to give us a “scientific” explanation of a classic mythical monster. And this is where it diverges from the movie (ok, more properly the movie diverges from the book) because it explicitly calls the plague victims “vampires” whereas in the movie they’re not – at least I don’t recall any fangs or bloodsucking. I actually quite enjoy this trope and Matheson does it well, though it has been done better since.
The story is fairly slow-moving. There are some fast paced moments of fleeing from or fighting his vampire foes, but there are also long passages, discussions of how he survives, of his scientific theorising, in which not a lot happens. I actually didn’t mind but I can imagine some readers being impatient.
The ending is another area where the book differs from the 1971 movie (and the 2007 one is different again I believe). I actually think the movie ending is the better one – but I won’t spoil either.