I think that it’s important when reviewing this title not to underplay its influence on subsequent vampire, apocalyptic and zombie genres, and not just in the novel format. Horror-meister George Romero cites I am Legend as the main influence for his seminal Night of the Living Dead movie.
That’s no small beer: from that classic an entire sub-genre was born, so it’s interesting to think then that the vampire technically gave birth (or had a huge part to play) in the creation of the zombie genre as we know it today.
Matheson’s 1954 tale of lone survivor Robert Neville, battling against demons of his own isolation as well as those of the infected hordes, is a compelling one. Whilst the initial forays by Neville to challenge the status-quo of vampire dominance which has cropped up in this new world are fairly routine, they set in place a series of events which lead up to an almost deranged climax. Those very things which Neville questions and reflects upon throughout, such as his sanity, and his humanity, are ultimately turned around and unleashed upon him by the novel’s conclusion.
The book is lightly peppered with flashbacks of Neville’s past. These both assist the narrative by filling in chunks of timeline and back-story progression, but leave still enough mystery in that they don’t fully answer all of the reader’s questions.
But then the questions needn’t all be answered, as this tale is one where the bold element of apocalyptic devastation and corrupt infestation of those few survivors is secondary to the kind of good old questions inferred by the narrative such as who am I? What defines me?
You know, the kind of stuff we tend to ask ourselves on those occasionally self-reflecting but hopefully not too morose moments. I am Legend is such a book, yet here it’s done with a occasional and healthy injection of psychological shock horror prose. Yes it’s a good horror novel too. Scratch that – it’s a great horror novel too.
Emerging from bouts of drinking Neville investigates the nature of the outbreak, studying and trying to find out what’s going on. This, coupled with his discovery of another ‘normal’ survivor is the turning point leading toward the shock and surprise ending of the book.
Far from being the clichéd conclusion to such an interesting and thought provoking novel, the book sees Neville appreciate and ultimately accept not an unseen fate, but possibly a most unseemly perceived one, tinged with a unique sense of justice (or injustice, depending on where your sympathies lie).
Romero said that this book was about revolution, and on reaching the conclusion it’s easy to see why he felt that. Nonetheless, I think it’s the fact it reaches such heights in challenging one’s outlook on life and existence whilst along the way providing you with a damn good horror read that has made this such a great read. You couldn’t really ask for too much more, right?
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