There are numerous readers of speculative fiction whose brains are not activated by horror. I am one of them. Sophisticated interrogations of the human psyche can be engaging, but the cheap thrills of fear (and let’s be honest, fear is the foundation stone of the building of horror) are too narrow in aim for me to engage with as a genre. I don’t get scared. I don’t even get a feeling of discomfort or lingering sense of wonder reading such stories. Philip K. Dick, yes, but Stephen King, no. Thus, take my review of Richard Matheson’s 1954 I Am Legend with a grain of salt. A driven story, but oh so empty…
I Am Legend is the story of Robert Neville. The lone survivor of a vampire-zombie apocalypse, he lives in a barricaded home what remains of Inglewood's suburbs. Watching the clock each day, he must be home before sunset. The unearthly remnants of humanity climbing into the dark to hunt for fresh blood, they assault his home and conscience throughout the night, threatening to not only drive him insane, but kill him if they can get their fangs into his body. Hammering wooden stakes through the vampires he encounters while collecting food and supplies in the daylight, the meaning and purpose of life deteriorate with each sunset, moving him to drink and depression. The arrival of a mangy dog on his doorstep one day changes everything, however.
Starring a vampire-zombie apocalypse, I Am Legend is a simple genre conceit—and never exceeds the outlay. Matheson drives the story with a tightly focused narrative and tough prose, and never gets bogged down in the tedium of a zombie apocalypse. But from the beginning it must be accepted that: the characters (character, actually) will achieve one, possibly one and a half, dimensions (halfway to empathy!), the zombies will never achieve anything beyond B-movie status, and the conclusion will be as cheesy as one expects in horror. As a simple beach read it works; as sophisticated literature it does not.
In the end, I Am Legend is an undemanding story made entertaining by Matheson’s premise, tight plot, and aggressive prose. A ‘last man on Earth’ story set in a vampire apocalypse, the cheapness is partially offset by a focused narrative that drives steadily to a melodramatic conclusion, but only partially. The novel certainly square in the wheelhouse of mainstream horror and science fiction fans, for such readers it will be an exciting piece that delivers in spades. Those looking for more complex characters and in-depth content, however, will need to look elsewhere.