Rarely in history has a book had such a profound impact on its genre as I Am Legend. More than half a century after its initial release, it continues to influence the countless zombie apocalypse, vampire society and lonely wasteland wanderer stories that now pervade popular culture. Themes that we now consider cliché, like the scientific origin of the paranormal disease, and the sole survivor turned hardened hunter, were novel and original when this book was first released. Testament to how successfully Matheson captured these ideas, they are now over-used and over-familiar. But if you’ve never read the original, rest assured it still stands the test of time.
What’s I Am Legend all about
Robert Neville is a survivor; the only one, in fact. He alone is immune to the disease that killed off the human race, and he alone has the responsibility of dealing with its legacy. Because those that died, impossibly, started to come back. Neville’s time is spent in simple routine, killing the undead as they sleep by day, disposing of the bodies and trying to discover a cure. By night, the undead haunt and hound him. It’s a tale of total isolation, and ongoing routine and hope in the face of complete desolation.
What makes it so special
The atmosphere of I Am Legend is perfectly captured, the truly harrowing of experience of one man alone in the world, surrounded by horror. It’s something that many have tried to recreate: with three major films based on it, The Last Man on Earth, Omega Man and, most recently, I Am Legend. Yet none of these quite live up to the grim tension of the book, always relying on additional action and detail to pad the story out. And none quite grasp the impact of the book’s final, damning twist, that makes full sense of the title for a lasting sense of unease.
That apocalyptic dread didn’t just inspire the direct film adaptations that followed; it inspired much of the zombie apocalypse genre (as credited by George Romero), as well as alternative vampire cultures (unlike the traditional Bram Stoker breed). It’s also full of simple ideas that would later be seen everywhere: the wasteland wanderer’s loyal dog, for example. All this was influential for a reason: Matheson captured an original idea with an arresting story. It might’ve been ripped off a thousand times since, but it’s still worth reading the book that spawned so much mimicry.