End Date: July 28th
Author: Richard Matheson
Pages: 151 (hardcover)
Selected By: Elle Tea
“Robert Neville is the last living man on Earth… but he is not alone. Every other man, woman, and child on the planet has succumbed to the vampire plague, and they are hungry for Neville’s blood.
“By day, he is the hunter, stalking the undead through the ruins of civilization. By night, he barricades himself in his home and prays for the dawn.
“How long can one man survive like this?”
Full disclosure here: I had no idea that the Charleston Heston movie The Omega Man and the Will Smith movie I Am Legend were based on novels – or, to be accurate, one novel. This novel. And once I learned that, I was hesitant to pick it at all, because, honestly, The Omega Man bored me, and I watched I Am Legend exactly one time and swore I would never watch it again – for one thing, Samantha, and that’s all I’ll say about that, and for another, the ending… that horrid, happy, miraculous Hollywood ending just made no kind of sense to me.
The keynote of minority prejudice is this: They are loathed because they are feared.
But now that it’s said and done, I’m so glad I picked Matheson’s original novel, and I don’t understand for the life of me why filmmakers don’t just make this story, make Neville’s story as Matheson created it, and let it end the way he wrote it to end – it’s sad and thought-provoking and so bloody different than all the other crap we’re spoonfed by the entertainment industry these days.
But is he worse than the parent who gave to society a neurotic child who became a politician? Is he worse than the manufacturer who set up belated foundations with the money he made by handling bombs and guns to suicidal nationalists? Is he worse than the distiller who gave bastardized grain juice to stultify further the brains of those who, sober, were incapable of a progressive thought?
Matheson’s novel is, on the surface, a horror story about a post-apocalyptic world where the human race has been entirely decimated by a worldwide plague, and the streets are filled with the blood-hungry, mindless, furious corpses of the illness’s victims. All that remains of our once mighty race is a middle-class blue-collar family man named Robert Neville. Neville has watched his family succumb to the plague, as well as his friends and neighbors, and he’s left with nothing but lonely, eerily quiet daylight hours that he spends foraging for resources and fortifying his home’s defenses, and lonely, nightmarish nights waiting to see whether those defenses hold against the onslaught of people he once knew who are ready to rip him to pieces for the blood pumping through his veins.
After a while, though, even the deepest sorrow faltered, even the most penetrating despair lost its scalpel edge. The flagellant’s curse, he thought, to grow inured even to the whip.
Neville is an intelligent man and a bit of an intellectual, which serves him well, since there’s not a lot left to do in this grim new world but consider, ponder, think, wonder, question, and plan. He stuffs his head with medical, survival, and scientific knowledge, and he runs through internal monologues about the world as it once was, about all we did right and all we did wrong. He ponders his own mortality quite frequently and demands of no one in particular to know what his purpose is, as one would, I think, when left alone on Earth. At night, he stifles his raging brain, quiets his broken heart, and drowns out the screams and taunts from the vampires on the other side of the walls with as much liquor as he can pump into his face, which leads him to do galactically stupid and reckless things on occasion… but, really, I get the point of those moments of weakness, as well. Poor Bob’s not perfect. He’s lonely and he’s angry and he’s depressed and he’s scared out of his effin’ mind, and while he clearly can’t bring himself to just let go, sometimes, under the influence of alcohol, he does those dumb things as a way of telling himself he could, if he wanted to, end this whole farce.
But he doesn’t give up. Not ever.
Let’s face it, he thought miserably, I lost my mind a long time ago. I can’t think two days in succession without having seams come loose. I’m useless, worthless, without value, a dud. All right, he replied with a shrug, that settles it. Let’s get back to the problem. So he did.
But beneath the surface, I Am Legend is also a social commentary, as well as a commentary on perspectives. For most of the novel, we are following Robert Neville, the hero of his own story. He was part of the majority race (humans), and now he’s a Party of One. But suddenly, near the end of the book, everything gets flipped topsy-turvy, and we’re left with only one clear and unquestionable reality: the actions of the majority are only considered normal and acceptable for the duration of the time that the majority remains in majority. When the camera swings another direction, when the angle gets a little wider and a different perspective becomes clearer, it’s obvious that what we’ve believed for almost two-hundred pages was never how things actually were or are.
The world changed. Only Neville stayed the same.
Intense hope was not the answer and never had been. In a world of monotonous horror there could be no salvation in wild dreaming.
I found Matheson’s writing style refreshing – the book was written in the 1950s, and authors then had to actually, y’know, know language and grammar. Of course, being written in the fifties also means there is one word which was perfectly acceptable at the time (Neville refers to one of his neighbors as “Negro”); the word only appears twice, I believe, but it is there, so heads up on that. Personally, I always take into account when a movie or book was originally filmed or written, or I look at the context in which something was used, but I know nowadays most people are much more easily offended or ultra-sensitive to all things including references to a less-than-perfect past. So if you know you’re the type of person who is infuriated by mainstream comedians, beware: two pages of this novel are probably going to have you out burning books in the streets and demanding that Matheson be drawn and quartered (FYI, sorry to disappoint, but the author’s been dead for five years).
I didn’t actually mark this book down for Matheson’s use of a word that was, as I said, perfectly acceptable at the time in which this novel was written. I didn’t think it was one of the best books I’ve ever read, so I couldn’t give it five cups, and I wavered on giving it four. The final decision to give it a three rather than a four was solely based on Matheson’s tendency to mention that it was the 1970s, which, again, when the book was written would make perfect sense; if you’ve been following our site for a while now, you know I’m an escape artist when it comes to novels (I love to get lost in books and let the real world around me just meeeelt awaaaay), and I could believe in Neville’s terrible future world while I was reading – and then I’d hit a reminder that “the future” as Neville knew it was 40 years ago, and suddenly I wasn’t Bob Neville walking down an abandoned city street anymore, but Elle Tea curled up in a chair reading a sixty-year-old book. (It’s ironic, in a way, that Matheson also wrote Bid Time Return, later adapted into the movie Somewhere in Time, which, if you’ve never read / seen it, involves something along this same escapist concept: a man travels back in time but has to hide any reminders of the time from which he came – or risk being dragged back where he belongs.)
Normalcy was a majority concept, the standard of many and not the standard of just one man.
I can easily recommend this book to anyone who loves well-written, thought-provoking horror or dark, dystopian novels. Besides Bid Time Return / Somewhere in Time, Matheson was also the creator of the novels Hell House (1973 film starring Roddy McDowall), A Stir of Echoes (1999 film starring Kevin Bacon), and What Dreams May Come (1998 film starring Robin Williams), not to mention quite a few of the more popular episodes of The Twilight Zone.
Elle’s Favorite Character(s): Robert Neville. Sometimes he’s stupid, sometimes he’s angry, sometimes he’s reckless, and sometimes he’s just plain pathetic… but sometimes he’s smart and kind and strategic and braver than I’d ever be in a hundred bajillion-gazillion years.
Elle Tea read the Amazon Kindle version of this selection.
This was a pretty good book. It was a quick read, which is a given considering how short it truly is, but it did have some parts that I felt dragged a little too much. Personally, I prefer characters when they’re interacting with the environment or other people, when there are conversations and action and things going on, and sifting through mental murkiness tends to bore me pretty quickly.
Don’t get me wrong, the whole book is told from Neville’s point of view, and he’s alone in the world, so there’s not a lot to do but sit around and think. And the parts where Neville was working things out in his own head were important to the story and painted a complete picture of his situation, but they tended to also lose my attention. This was especially true in chapters when Neville was focused on scientific research and preparations – it was cool, in the end, but I’ve never been all that interested in science, so when he’d start going down those rabbit holes, I’d find myself skimming through it like so much la la la la la blah blah blah blah blah la laaaaa.
How long did it take for the past to die?
This book does give a good impression of what a regular human being would go through if the world ever ended and vampires took over. Well. Neville may not be entirely normal – he’s more of an above-average sorta guy when it comes to a lot of technical and scientific stuff, clearly, but he’s normal in that his thoughts, feelings, and actions are similar to what I think a lot of people would go through if in the same situation – and I did like that Matheson covered these, when I think a lot of authors would have skipped over the details with some sweeping comment like, “And he got upset but made this thing anyway.”
He didn’t want them to get Cortman, he realized, didn’t want them to destroy Cortman like that.
Neville was a hard guy to completely like, and I did get mad at him on a few occasions, especially when he would do some remarkably stupid thing that, in his situation, would totally get him killed. For example, he tended to have temper tantrums and drink himself stupid, which led him to do reckless shit like break things he might need later or decide rushing out into the night to taunt the vampires was a good idea. These emotional outbursts and lack of control were almost too real – I could see a person doing this, easily, a regular person who’s no superhero, because sometimes our emotions override our logic. But he’d take it too far, and it just seemed senseless.
He realized he felt more deeply toward the vampires than he did toward their executioners.
To be honest, I didn’t really like Neville on a personal level, but at the same time I could find myself saying, “Wow, I bet this is how a person would get in this situation, I bet this is what would happen, and if we ever met someone else in the world again, we’d never tell them we did this or felt this way, because they’d think we were nuts, ’cause I know if some stranger confessed that to me, I’d think they were nuts.” I mean, he was alone for three years, so I tried to sympathize with the guy, and I’ll give him points for resilience, because I don’t think I’d make it anywhere near that long. But as much as I could respect his perseverance, he really just made me sad. I hated that the world that he knew, that the sense of normalcy he had, was taken from him. And the force and brutal disregard that occurs at the ending was, to me, very sad.
Full circle. A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend.
This book is pretty much nothing at all like the movie, so I can definitely recommend it. It’s short and fun… and sad.
BillMo’s Favorite Character(s): Neville… sometimes. And sometimes I didn’t like him at all.
BillMo read the Amazon Kindle version of this selection.
Well, if you go into this expecting the motion picture, you’ll be sorely disappointed, unless you hated the motion picture, then maybe pleasantly surprised. I didn’t have any expectations set and when I found it was set in the 1970s vice 2000s, I was a bit thrown at first, but I could also place this in my head like a period piece. . . think Forrest Gump.
I’ll start by saying this is a very brief read. In fact, the version I got had short stories that put me in the frame of mind of The Twilight Zone. I knew nothing of the author and Elle managed to clue me in, that yes, in fact, the author was a writer on the Twilight Zone. Which made the short stories make so much sense because that is exactly I thought “this would be a great Twilight Zone episode or Tales from the Crypt. I was half expecting for Neville’s situation to be picked up or resolved in one of the little stories. I didn’t finish beyond three stories, after
Elle told me what was the story ended some 80 pages before I stopped.
Regardless, there are some vast differences between the movie with Will Smith and the novella that I don’t feel I should really get into, because, well, that would make this entire review a spoiler alert. However, I will say, for those of us who were terribly upset about his companion pup dying in the movie because of his stupidity, was changed a bit and I’ll get into that a little later, but at least I wasn’t angry with Neville in the novella as much as I was with Will Smith’s character.
When we find Neville, he is one year into the plague and have lost his wife and daughter. Yes, I’m the only person alive despair grips him. Who wouldn’t when the only “company” you have is that of vampires stalking your house every night calling your name like some morbid Red Rover game? He is trying desperately to maintain some sort of normalcy for himself. Preparation keeps him going, but curiosity and the need to understand the plague that swept the land is gnawing at him. Unfortunately, he is a drunk and grieving, so he needs to get his act together before he can methodically approach the situation. Which he does eventually.
My biggest pet peeve for Neville is that he allows his desperation for companionship to allow him to put himself and others in danger. *****SPOILER ALERT***** >>> Let’s go to the pup, shall we? He was so excited to see a living being in just as bad a shape as he was, that he attempted to aide it, for the sake of him being able to have a buddy. While I wanted that dog off the street as badly as Neville did, I got the uneasy feeling that his efforts to tame the feral dog would cause the dog to also become complacent and trust those he should not. He does not have this dog nearly as long as Will Smith had in the movie. However, the month it took him to cultivate the trust of the dog, ultimately cause the dog’s demise. Now that the dog had someone feeding it and coaxing it to come closer, it was no wonder that the poor little guy didn’t make it indoors before he was infected. I almost wish he had set a trap early on, brought it in the shed or house then won its trust vice knee-capping the little survivalist. <<< *****END SPOILER*****
I could appreciate in this one that Neville is not a scientist in this novel. We know he works at some type of plant, but there is no clear definition of his role. I did like that everything he did was an experiment when it came to dealing with the vampires. He was taking his common scientific knowledge, supplementing that with going to a library to hone up on things that were not his specialty or aptitude. The fact that he approached the subject methodically and rationally was inspiring in spite of his issue.
However, the key lesson to be learned at the end of the novel is that depending on where you stand on an issue, it could be that while you view others as monsters, you could also be considered the monster. While Neville represented the old life, or what he considered normal life, what he could not grasp is that his species is now extinct save for him. While he was conducting his experiments in attempting to bring back his normal, he had to get used to the new normal where he was a crazed predator and a threat to the new normal/society. It was clear at the end of the novella that he was feared as much as he feared the evolution of mankind.
This was a short read, but intriguing nonetheless. I wasn’t blown away by it, thus not a 5 cupper for me. I was left wanting more and a more solid resolution. However, in Twilight Zone fashion, you are left to conjecture to how things truly ended.
Esbe’s Favorite Character(s): Robert Neville.
Lady Esbe read the Tor 2nd Ed. paperback version of this selection.