Published less than ten years after the end of World War II and the detonation of two atomic bombs, I Am Legend was part of a revival of disaster theme literature. Earlier in the century, literature of this sort was less common and usually centered on natural catastrophe. Notable examples of this earlier type include Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1915) and S. Fowler Wright’s Deluge (1928). In England, post-World War II disaster literature continued this emphasis on natural catastrophe, for example in John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) and John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (1956). U.S. science-fiction writers, on the other hand, concentrated on disease, with George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949) preceding I Am Legend by several years. Other noteworthy examples include Algis Budry’s Some Will Not Die (1961), Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969), and Stephen King’s The Stand (1978; text restored, 1990).
I Am Legend was Matheson’s first science-fiction novel, and it established his reputation in the field. He followed it with two others, The Shrinking Man (1956) and Bid Time Return (1975), which won the World Fantasy Award for best novel of 1975. For the most part, Matheson’s writing blends fantasy and science fiction in a combination that is more mysterious than explicable, more fanciful than...
(The entire section is 439 words.)
As I Am Legend begins, in January, 1976, Earth has been ravaged, first by nuclear war, then by a mysterious plague that transforms its victims into vampires. One normal human being, Robert Neville, remains. Through him, Richard Matheson dramatizes humanitys desperate struggle to overcome a catastrophe that it perhaps brought upon itself.
In the first of the novel’s four parts, Neville has barricaded himself in his home against the nightly onslaughts of the vampires, among them his former friend and neighbor, Ben Corman. While Corman shouts for him to come out, Neville attempts to block the horror with classical music and alcohol. By day, while the vampires sleep, he repairs the damage to his house and hunts his tormentors. This has been his life for five months. He avoids the past, particularly memories of his wife, Virginia, and daughter, Kathy, both victims of the plague. Instead, he exists alone in the terrifying present, eating, drinking, listening to Beethoven, and killing scores of vampires.
When part 2 opens in March, 1976, Neville has refortified and soundproofed his house. More secure, he begins to diverge from his obsession with destroying vampires and seeks to understand them and the disease that engendered them. Thus begins a clever scientific inquiry that transforms into science fiction what has been so far a rather ordinary horror story. With microscope and science book in hand more frequently than mallet and stake,...
(The entire section is 552 words.)