From it’s beginning, horror literature has been shunned from critical study by scholars of American Literature. Yet, avid readers consume novels categorized as part of the horror or thriller genre more than any other literary genre. Horror novels, at times, find themselves placed at the same level as the latest steamy romance novel or a cheap mystery paperback. However, novels exist that have been carelessly thrown into the bottomless bin of read and move on books that proffer literary value to the American canon. Of course, like any form of literature, there are examples of every genre that deserve to fall to the bottom of that pit and never resurface. The argument is why a genre can be recognized as holding literature of greater literary merit over another, such as horror. Richard Matheson’s horror novel I am Legend, penned in 1954, is largely considered a pioneer novel for Gothic literature in America. Its influence over major writers of today and continued recognition proves that it deserves to be credited by scholars, as well as included in modern anthologies of American Literature.
The plot of I am Legend centers around the survival of a man named Robert Neville, who is the last living human on earth. Every day Neville ventures out into the daylight to stake and kill the creatures that try to lure him from his safe house at night; vampires. The vampires that Matheson creates are intelligent, with more human-like qualities than the old school Nosferatu. While Neville harbors himself inside, the vampires will taunt him; “Above the noises, he heard Ben Cortman shout as he always shouted. ‘Come out, Neville!’ Someday I’ll get that bastard” (Matheson 20). This taunting illustrates just a minute fraction of the terror Neville finds himself subjected to night after night.
The thought of being totally removed from any form of human interaction does not appeal to most stable individuals. Part of the definition of being human includes craving the presence of others, as well as attention from loved ones. Neville must live the rest of his life without feeling the comfort of another human being. Alas, once the sun sets, he must shut out the noise of creatures calling to him. The temptation he must feel to walk out into the darkness, into the embrace of those who wish to harm him, kill him and drink his life essence must be overwhelming at times. At one point, while in a drunken rage, he does rush out into the night, only to come to his senses before anything irrevocable occurs. The horror of his total isolation and loss of sociality becomes the central theme and opposing force of the novel.
Fundamentally, Neville’s need for human company remains unfulfilled… This, the loss of love and companionship, is the central concern of the novel. For members of a social species such as ours, the horror of isolation is very real and very rational. Solitary isolation in the criminal justice system is considered an especially severe form of punishment. And a human infant dumped into the world would have slim chances of surviving on its own: at best, it would grow up severely psychologically impaired. We depend on other people not just for reproduction and survival, but for psychological and emotional growth and fulfillment. (Clasen 320)
I am Legend is atypical for the horror genre in that the monsters take a back seat to the psychological horror of the protagonist. While Robert’s isolation becomes the core issue of the novel, it would be foolish to forget that sub-human creatures hunt Neville on a nightly basis. The act of predation elicits a primal fear in all species, even the vampires in the novel, as the reader learns at the end of I am Legend. As human beings, we are nearly biologically programmed to fear that which means to harm us. This fact explains why many people are afraid of spiders, snakes, and heights. During ours days as hunter-gathers, nature was our greatest enemy. In contrast to returning back to the village with the daily hunt, Robert “sat in his living room, trying to read. He’d made himself a whisky and soda at his small bar and he held the cold glass as he read a physiology text. From the speaker over the hallway door, the music of Schonberg was playing loudly” (Matheson 18). Thus, we see the timeless emotion of fear and being the hunted one.
The core themes present in I am Legend coincide with concepts familiar to post-modernism. For example, the majority of the novel revolves around Neville’s experience in isolation and his resulting behavior. As readers, we are able to witness the mental degradation of Robert; his downward spiral into alcoholism and dejection. We witness the psychological complexities of the human psyche, a major aim of post-modern literature. “Spinning, he drove his fists one after the other into the wall until he’d cracked the plaster and broken his skin. Then he stood there trembling helplessly, his teeth chattering. Oh, God, he thought, how long, how long?” (Matheson 33). During Neville’s mental worst of the novel, we start to suspect that he will look to suicide as an answer to his unending torture. But his question of suicide is almost a relief for the reader, rather than an event that would make us cringe in horror and sadness for the protagonist. It would be a mercy for Neville to be able to escape the life that has been forced upon him. In this way, the complexities of the human mind are brought forth, not only in Neville’s unique case but our reactions as readers to view his possible suicide as not a purely negative thing. We fear what Neville fears; to loose one’s sanity. Fear is one of the most intense emotions human beings can feel. “The oldest and strongest kind of emotion is fear and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuiness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tales as a literary form” (Lovecraft 12). What is more unknown than the human mind and all its imaginings?
The viewpoint of multiple realities within post-modern literature is embodied in I am Legend. The vampires represented in the novel are written as monsters that deserve to be destroyed. Robert Neville is the tragic, solitary man whose duty is to stake and kill whatever vampire or infected human he can find. These creatures hunt him at night and wouldn’t have a moments thought of ripping open the flesh on his neck and draining him dry. As fellow humans, we obviously empathize with Neville and his cause, rooting for his success over that of his foe. Neville hates them with a burning passion, understandably so. At one point, Neville jokingly has a conversation (with himself of course) about what was so bad about the vampire; “Really, now, search your soul, lovie-is the vampire so bad? All he does is drink blood…Robert Neville grunted a surly grant. Sure, sure he thought, but would you let your sister marry one? He shrugged. You got me there, buddy, you got me there” (Matheson 32). Neville retains this opinion throughout the plot and we continue to support him. Toward the end of the novel, the vampires capture Neville, but instead of slaughtering him, they drag him back to their newly formed society. He is to be executed for his crimes against their race. Neville’s grand epiphany blossoms before our very eyes. “Full circle, he thought while the final lethargy crept into his limbs. Full circle. A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am Legend” (Matheson 170). The vampires are afraid of him. They believe him to be a mass murderer, a serial killer of their people. That is their reality. Neville’s has been the never-ending, all consuming fear and drive for survival against these creatures. All along his fear has been shared by the ones whom he has been afraid of; the last man on earth and vampire murderer, he had become the legend.
Through the analysis of the text I am Legend, it’s clear that forms and viewpoints of post-modern literature can be discovered in unexpected literary genres. The horror genre, particularly, is underrepresented amongst literature that is deemed worthy of critical study. The complexities of the human psyche and the representation of multiple realties within the novel support the claim that I am Legend deserves not only critical study, but acceptance into popular, modern anthologies of American Literature today.
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