Reflections on Horror Literature: I Am Legend

I’m taking a course on monsters in horror fiction, and over the next few months will be blogging about responses to some classic and contemporary works. This week it’s Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which if you’ve only seen the Will Smith film is worth a read. In fact, none of the many adaptations of this book are even remotely faithful to this piece, which is actually chilling in its subtlety. As a piece of modern horror, I enjoyed it, but I had serious issues with the protagonist.

The horror of I Am Legend is the horror of a man left alone with his own thoughts. The creatures assaulting his home every night–vampire, zombie…it almost doesn’t matter what they are so much as that they are, to him, inhuman, and therefore to be avoided in the nighttime and slain in the daytime–aren’t the true monster. The true monster is Robert Neville, a fact which of course is his final revelation before death.

Even in flashback, as kind as Neville appears to be to his wife (though not particularly his daughter, who is an absent, fleeting thought to him both in life and death), he’s not necessarily the most likable hero. He has an unremarkable job, has to rely on a neighbor for carpooling, and is so sentimental that he can’t bring himself to dispose of his vampire-infected wife in such a way that he’ll save himself a lot of agony down the road. This is not a forward-thinking, rational man, and yet he’s the last vestige of the uninfected human race.

During the worst of the plague years, as he holes up alone with his classical music and alcohol (so much alcohol!), Neville veers from rational researcher to maudlin drunk and back again, interspersed with sweeps to clear the vampires, both living and dead, from his neighborhood. That lack of distinction, of course, is his hubris, and his illogical failure to recognize the source of his own immunity until well late in the game is also frustrating. Since Neville is the character the reader is stuck with, it’s frustrating that we’re stuck with such a dud.

My complaints about him are not to say his motivations don’t make sense, if one takes the idea of forced solitude to its logical conclusion: madness. By reading Neville as completely bonkers by about mid-book (or even before the book’s start) is to forgive a lot of his failings, rantings, and bad decisions. Who wouldn’t go crazy if your family died, you had bloodsucking fiends pounding on your door every night, and you had no one to talk to? I can give Neville a little leeway, then, if he puts more effort into soundproofing his house, rigging up his stereo, and stocking up on booze than he finally gives into figuring out the nature of the bacteria causing the infection.

But I still can’t completely feel at ease with Neville, even forgiving his insanity, because I am a feminist critic. And as readable an author as Matheson is, this is very clearly both a first novel and a novel written in the 1950s. This is not the later Matheson who started to delve into romance territory (and rather beautifully) in the ’70s; this is a guy writing as a product of his era. Given that, the Ruth of the final chapter of I Am Legend is actually remarkably capable and impressive, but it’s Neville’s inherent assumptions and sexual attitudes that provide the source of much of the novel’s uncomfortable moments for me. This is a man having lustful thoughts about the zombie-esque female vampires assaulting his home, those whom Ruth describes as not being all there any longer. Neville seems to already know this, and yet he practically has to put himself in a straight jacket to avoid raping one of them. The vampires he experiments on, too, he has fleeting thoughts of assaulting. And finally even Ruth isn’t immune to these fleeting ideas when he first encounters her, despite entertaining the idea that he might be able to break his now-comfortable second bachelorhood to start a family with her…upon first meeting, he truly wondered if he might rape her.

Certainly in a post-apocalyptic novel there will be fears about rape. Even in the disaster comedy This is the End, the male characters worry that one of them might rape the lone woman in the house. The difference there is that film’s social commentary on the breakdown of society plays with wondering why that even comes up in a work about the end of the world. Must the men devolve so completely from civilized person to rapist? That film turns the idea ridiculous by having the characters begin to question that far quicker than we can assume Neville starts to, but the fact remains that his supposed “temptations” are extreme, shocking, and far more monstrous than the actions the bacteria causes the infected to commit. In the latter’s case, it’s driven by something out of the victim’s control, but Neville—though drunk and no longer completely sane—is still supposedly in control of his actions. The actions he is tempted to commit are violent, sexist power plays based on an apparent inability to direct his sexual drive into safer avenues. The actions, then, that he does commit without much thought—murder of both living and dead infection victims—fully cement him as the monster of the piece. Perhaps a better title would have been I Am Monster.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Reflections on Horror Literature: I Am Legend

  1. Samantha Lienhard

    I think one of the most telling details about Neville is right near the end, when Ruth asks him if he’s ever seen his face when he kills, and then describes the terrifying look on his face when he was chasing her.

    • Exactly. That comment reminded me of what happens to vampires in the World of Darkness role-playing universe. If you don’t have enough blood, you go into a rage-blind frenzy state and can’t help yourself. It sounded to me like Neville entered that state a lot.

    • That’s an absolutely fascinating point. Neville never looks at his reflection, just like the vampires can’t stand to look in a mirror. It’s almost a hint toward the final ending. I never even noticed it before.

  2. With the way that Neville is the main focus, and with the realization at the end that he is indeed the monster, does this story still hold up as good example of a ‘monster’ tale? Especially when compared to other stories where the monster is not at all human? I would venture to say that the vampires end up being more like victims here, between the bacteria that affected them in the first place, and this immune guy who goes on a killing spree every day.

  3. Margaret Ayala

    I like that you view Neville as insane. It does give him some leeway for his actions, but doesn’t excuse them. I didn’t read him as insane, more just longing for company. The insane slant is definitely something to keep in mind during the re-read.

  4. I found it particularly vexing was, especially in the beginning, whenever Neville would go to one of his ‘rape-y’ places, we as the audience would follow him the whole time. He’d get the rape-y feeling, get angry, start drinking, then smash stuff, then drink until he blacked out. Not once during this extreme and self destructive process did he even entertain the idea of having some ‘me time.’ I don’t know if this is because of when the novel was written, or a product of Neville’s particular brand of dysfunction, but it struck me as incredibly odd.

    • Seriously! That was something I wondered as well, and I have to think it’s either a) a product of the book’s era, or b) glossed over so obliquely that we can’t tell that’s what was actually happening.

  5. Although the feminist interpretation is valid, I still think both the book and Neville need to to be viewed in historical context. Matheson was born in 1926, and this story was written in the early 1950’s–and for a paperback originals line marketed to men. Neville’s attitude towards women was not only accepted as the norm when it novel was written, it was, sad to say, the accepted norm in the then “future” years when it took place. (I graduated from High School in 1976.) Aside from sexual attitude and gender roles, remember, women couldn’t even get credit cards without a male co-signer until 1974.

    • Oh, I’m aware, though it bears reminding. It surprises younger people when I tell them, for example, that my own grandmothers were born prior to women having the right to vote. But we also shouldn’t forget that even before this book there was such a thing as feminist genre fiction, even written by men, a well-known example being The Wizard of Oz. The challenge would be to find feminist horror fiction of the 1950s written by men.

      • And if we find it, it won’t have been published by Gold Medal Books. They were, I believe, the first publishers of cheap paperback originals, and their target audience was manly men (as defined by the era). None of that sensitive girly stuff need apply. I AM LEGEND was written for its target audience, the majority of whom identified with Neville’s attitudes. (I am NOT defending those attitudes in any way. I’m just acknowledging they were the prevailing attitude, especially the male attitude, of the era.)

  6. I would have liked to see more crazy bits from Neville. He’s clearly on a downward spiral what with the isolation and drinking. I wanted a bit more escalation. It might’ve broken up the tedious bits.

    While I could sympathize with his situation, it was his thoughts about women that killed him as a protagonist for me. Maybe that was to help define him as a monster in the end? Regardless, it rubbed me the wrong way.

    • Neville almost seems to suddenly suffer from bipolar disorder upon the start of the vampire infection. The mania phases of productivity are broken up by depressive phases of alcoholism.

  7. Michelle R. Lane

    You know, I never really thought about Neville’s lack of interaction with his daughter in flashback, but honestly, it may again be due to the fact that historically, men didn’t always have great relationships with their kids. At least not exceptionally close ones like we see today. His wife stayed at home and raising children was part of her sphere of responsibility. He misses his wife more, not only because of his biological needs and perhaps his actual love for her, but because he would have been closer to her and more dependent on her for his other needs, like housework, cooking, etc. Sad, but true.

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