Dark Futures Book 5: I Am Legend

Dark Futures is a 20-book exploration of the fears of our futures, an odd sub-genre of Science Fiction that draws in on the society of the time and projects it forward, into uncomfortable visions of the world to be. The idea is the same across many books, the results, very different.  We’ve had a lot of dystopias so far, so for a change of pace, this time we are talking about an apocalypse…

I wonder where it all went wrong for Vampires. I mean, the modern Vampire is more akin to some sort of supernatural Heathcliff, cursed and gruff and dark (yet someone masking a tortured, redeemable soul. It’s not to judge the benighted creature’s condition, as many have taken up the bandwidth to do, it’s more a question of how they got to that state.

The reason I’m wondering about this is because the vampires in 1954’s I Am Legend feel incredibly fresh; savage predators ranging from almost bestial revenants up to the dawning (if I can use that metaphor) new civilisation at the books ending.  For most of the book the Vampires are more reminiscent of modern Zombies – infectious undead, attacking in almost mindless attacks, and yet Mathesons vision predates George Romero’s (1968) Dawn of the Dead, which pretty much re-creates the shambling undead phenomenon from scratch.

Of course the main thrust of I am Legend is the central story of Robert Neville, seemingly the last man alive in a New York overrun with monsters. There is a curiously domestic feel about the first part of the novel, the drudgery and routine of living in isolation, and a claustrophobic tension that grows through it – especially with Neville’s increasingly fevered obsession with the female vampires that taunt him through the windows.  It’s against this air of sexually frustrated nihilism that we gradually learn the back story, in flashes and parts, the death of his family and the death of his world. And I say “his” world because, the books ending notwithstanding, this is another very personal vision of the end, with little sense of the wider world situation other than “bad”.

The second act, leading up the books rightly famous last minute punch, is of an apparently more stable and busy Neville teaching himself and busying himself with a need to understand (and potentially cure) the monsters. In some ways it starts out a more conventional narrative – and in both filmed versions ends as one – but it’s always pretty clear he’s orbiting his own personal black hole of insanity and despair, and the arrival of Ruth, a seeming other survivor makes that clear, and their debates are as much about reawakening his humanity and establishing her character.

You can’t sadly, discuss I am Legend properly without the end so apologies for spoilers. But it’s the end that makes it really, and turns a tense, well written book into a modern classic. Because, of course, there is a new society out there, but they’re evolved Vampires, a new breed, struggling themselves to find their own humanity, and for them, its clear, Neville is the monster; the thing that comes when they are weak and drains them of life, that hunts them, that destroys them. He is what they will threaten their children with, if they don’t behave. It’s a classic horror twist expertly played as he finally, crushingly realises what he has become, and, oddly, finally finds a kind of peace.

I really rather enjoyed I am Legend, and it was interesting after a spate of “Big Ideas” books – books that are really about “stuff” – to read a story that really wasn’t interested in making larger points but just staying tightly focused on Neville and his experiences. I suspect you could try and draw something from it but really I don’t think that’s the point. Matheson sets out to put in the place of someone living past the end of the world, to make you empathise with him, and then pull the rug out from under him, and you, in a big way. And in the end, he does just that.


Next time: Some authors seem to specialise in ending the world. One such is John Wyndham, appearing in this list with The Chrysalids.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus. Earlier Reviews in this series can be found using the tag “Dark Futures” or the column name “Tolkien Gestures”

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  1. Phlambler /

    Really good to hear that you enjoyed this Matt. It is one of my all time favourite books and I am ashamed to say I only picked it up about 8 months ago!

    I think the final sentence is one of the most perfectly crafted endings to a book EVER!

    • dwgrampus /

      yeah, i feel oddy guilty i’ve never read this before. Its surprisingly timeless!

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