No, you should not.
Tor Books (this edition, including 10 additional short stories)
From $5.98 on Amazon
Behold the terrors of the near future--1976! Hootchie lady vampires in skimpy dresses wander the streets, and the last man on earth barricades himself at home with a supply of good scotch, pipe tobacco, and Rachmaninov records. The horror!
I'm not the first person who thought they could trace the roots of zombie fiction back to Richard Matheson's 1954 story of Robert Neville, a California factory foreman reflecting on a world overrun by the undead. Though they swarm and surround his house, Matheson's antagonists aren't zombies; they're vampires craving after human blood, converted from the living by an airborne pathogen. Robert Neville, the steely-eyed survivor holed-up at home, is the world's last living man. Reader, beware: the manuscript bears no further resemblance to the eponymous 2007 film starring Will Smith.
This was the first time I'd read anything by Matheson, though I had very high hopes. I'm a pretty big buff of writers of the 50's and 60's: Vonnegut and Joseph Heller were producing some of their best material around this period, and the sci-fi world saw Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes and John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos (later filmed as Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Matheson might not have a household name, but he's left an indelible legacy of creepy tales that continue to surface in television and film. In addition to writing The (Incredible) Shrinking Man and What Dreams May Come, Matheson was a contributing writer on some creative juggernauts; eight of his short stories were adapted for the Twilight Zone, including the famous episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." Stephen King raves about Matheson in his 1981 non-fiction Danse Macabre, an online AMC FilmCritic interview with Frank Darabont, and in his introduction to Legend's 2006 re-release. Blogger critics have praised this book in particular as mesmerizing and timeless.
I had so many problems reading this book, I don't know where to begin the autopsy. Robert Neville's machismo overpowers his pragmatism, fear, and isolation in every instance of character development, and the book clunks awkwardly and aimlessly at one hyperactive speed until it runs out of avenues to explore, then resolves through implosion. Pseudo-science takes up a large portion of the story, and the author's need to bring logic to the plague detracts from the flow. The book barely sustains itself through seriously wide plot holes. Woven throughout this mess are strands of profound sexism and vague racism.
I don't understand why Matheson turns so much of the book over to the hero's search to understand the pathogen that en-vampires the world. Maybe readers in the 1953 were more entranced by the distinctions between germ, bacteria, and virus? I couldn't care less. Through careful hours poring over works in an abandoned library, Neville discovers the germ responsible for reanimating the dead and infecting blood-lust in the living. That same germ causes susceptibility to sunlight and garlic, and creates a subcutaneous, bullet-proof membrane in the infected, which is why vampires are impervious to the bullets from Neville Roberts' gun.
But where did Neville get this gun? Perhaps from the same stock where he loots his cigars, wine, lamb chops, and steaks--three years after the rest of the world has died off. Writing in the first person, Neville alludes to a generator in his garage, but never explains how he has running water, or how the tobacco never goes stale.
I can't bother going into how this book resolves; the end is just too tedious and stupid. There are a few standout elements that merit some attention: Neville's character is a pretty stark portrait of paranoia and rage in an otherwise very silly universe; and the brief appearance of a dying dog late in the book inspires empathy for the character's isolation and loneliness. Squidoo.com praised this work for the internal tension, writing that "Neville's fight is as much against himself as against the vampires."
Still unaddressed are I Am Legend's uncomfortable undercurrents of racism and sexism. In one episode of inebriated ranting, Neville equates the vampire search for life-sustaining blood with African Americans' struggle for civil rights. I'm sure I wasn't the only reader to do a double-take when the protagonist drunkenly asks himself, "Sure, sure, but would you let your sister marry one?" Mikhail Lyubansky wrote a lengthy piece on this topic for Psychology Today, but I think he gives Matheson more credit than he deserves for being clever, and less than he deserves for being obnoxious.
The sexism is way more of a problem, both in severity and frequency. When a female survivor appears one day, Neville kidnaps her and later that night contemplates raping her. "Prey," a later story which follows I Am Legend, overtly sexualizes the physical struggle of a single woman battling an African doll called "He Who Hunts":
She cried out as the knife was jabbed beneath the door, its sharp point sticking into one of her toes. She shuffled back, shifting her grip on the knob. Her robe hung open. She could feel a trickle of blood between her breasts. Her legs felt numb with pain. She closed her eyes.
Wow! Anyone got a cigarette?
I thought this book was gross, and maybe a poor introduction to an otherwise great author's substantial oeuvre. If you had another take on it or can suggest works that better represent this writer, please recommend them here!