I just finished reading Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend for the second time. It was assigned for class. The first time I read it, it was also assigned for class. That first class, like this class, specified its focus on monster monsters, rather than human monsters, yet the debate arose in class: is Robert Neville, the human protagonist, a monster? (It was an interesting discussion, though it did not get as heated as the one about Frankenstein.) That question is one of the many things I love about this book.
When I picked up I Am Legend the first time, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew there was a movie with the same title, but until I got the book, I thought it was about football or something. (I have no idea where I got that impression.) Once I got the book, I realized it was about zombies. Then I went to class and found out it was about vampires. Even better. I opened the front cover and saw praise by Ray Bradbury, so I couldn’t wait to read it.
Partway through the book, I realized it was building toward a scientific explanation for its vampires. Vampires and science? It was like someone had told me I could have a piece of cake and then given me the entire cake instead!
It’s a good thing that this is the second time I’ve read it, because a response the first time would have amounted to me bouncing off the walls while babbling about vampires and science.
I really like this book. One of the few things I’d complain about is its treatment of Dracula, but I suppose I can’t have a scientific vampire story without Dracula taking a bit of a beating. That wasn’t even as bad as it could have been. And Robert Neville is never going to make it onto a list of my favorite characters, but that’s fine. There was enough suspense, excitement, and atmosphere for it not to bother me–and even if I didn’t particularly like him, the book made me feel his pain and loneliness. It built up a sense of isolation and hopelessness that was fantastic; you could argue that I Am Legend is a book about what happens when you’re cut off from everyone else and forced to survive all alone. For that matter, my uncertain feelings toward the main character might have made the ending more significant for me. I loved the ending. At first, in those final chapters, I hated where it was going and wanted things to be different, darn it, but when I actually got there, I loved it so, so much. For the sake of any curious blog readers who have yet to read I Am Legend, I won’t go any further with that.
Instead, I’ll talk about one of my favorite topics: villains! I’ve written so many response papers and analyses that end up focusing on villains. They fascinate me. A villain can make or break a story for me. In I Am Legend, there are a lot of great elements that came together to make me thoroughly enjoy it.
One of them is Ben Cortman.
The vampires that lurk around Neville’s house at night have one thing that makes them more than just a random assortment of hungry monsters, and that is Ben Cortman. Cortman retained more of his intelligence than most vampires do, which makes him feel like almost a character. And every night, he shouts for Neville to come out.
“Come out, Neville!”
Cortman addressing the protagonist by name stood out to me. It gave it a personal feeling. And to me, that was as chilling as Neville’s horrific encounter with Virginia after her death. For as much as the vampires that stalk Neville’s house every night are mindless monsters that just want his blood, they also aren’t mindless. Cortman recognizes him. He gives the monsters a face and he’s also an inescapable link to the past. One of my favorite lines in the entire book is the ending of chapter 6. It’s during a flashback. Neville gets into the car and greets the person beside him. “‘Good morning,’ said Ben Cortman” (Matheson 58).
You might argue that Cortman may have had a name and some lines, but not enough to be considered a character. He at least has presence, and an antagonist with presence is enough for me!
I Am Legend also deals with morality. Like I said at the beginning, it’s easy to argue that Neville himself is a monster. He spends a good deal of time arguing with himself (well, it’s not like there’s anyone else to talk to). At one point, he says he is “beginning to suspect his mind of harboring an alien. Once he might have termed it conscience. Now it was only an annoyance. Morality, after all, had fallen with society. He was his own ethic” (62). Though he does have his struggles with that conscience on certain issues, when it comes to others, “he had never once considered the possibility that he was wrong” (147). If you go into this book expecting it to have black and white morality, you will be thoroughly shaken. It covers much more ground than that. And by the end……. Well, I still don’t want to spoil it.
This book is great. It has vampires. It has science. It has a protagonist of questionable morality trapped in such circumstances that you will empathize with him. It has suspense and excitement and important questions. The writing is good, with some stand-out lines that strike you at your core. Its ending is delightfully chilling and perfectly satisfying. If you have not already read Matheson’s I Am Legend, you should do so.
You knew that was coming, right?
Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. 1954. New York: Tor, 2007. Print.Like this post? Tell your friends!
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