I am Legend

 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.

* Sources used are included as hyperlinks


13 responses to “I am Legend

  1. Michael Ragan ⋅

    Perfect analyis.

  2. :

    Hi Shelby,

    A very enjoyable website. I like your use of this theme, which has its own connection to a masterpiece of horror/suspense.

    What seems central to your analysis is the way in which Matheson shifted the meaning of horror from something supernatural–the otherworldly monster of Gothic fiction–to something internal–the human reaction to a world changed beyond recognition.

    You argue that Metheson’s work moved horror into a new realm beyond the Gothic horror of earlier writers. You then write: “I am Legend is atypical for the horror genre in that the monsters take a back seat to the psychological horror of the protagonist.” There may be some conflict here as to Matheson’s importance in shaping the horror genre.

    I am intrigued by your argument that “I am Legend” be seen as post-modern. You write: “The horror of his total isolation and loss of sociality becomes the central theme and opposing force of the novel.” The themes of isolation and fear are especially important here, and I think you could expand on the centrality of fear as a key aspect of post-WWII and post-modern fiction. Do you think that the book could be read as a commentary on post-nuclear and/or Cold War themes?

    Also, what is the importance of the popularity of the genre of horror–like fantasy and science fiction–in determining the importance of a work of “American Literature”?



    • Shelby Auxier ⋅

      Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      You’re correct about the conflict in my analysis about Matheson’s importance in shaping the horror genre. I should have clarified that “I am Legend” is atypical in comparison to traditional Gothic horror that preceded it. Gothic horror usually emphasized the terrifying nature of the monster, or unknown creature, and focused on the reaction of the characters when they are confronted by them. The modern horror genre that Matheson’s writing helped develop tends to align with focus of the human psyche, like in “I am Legend”. Even in Stephen King’s novels, particularly “The Shining”, readers witness the mental degradation of characters which is spurred by the presence of an evil force, be that a monster or something else. Thus, the physical horror takes a back seat to the horrors of the mind.

      Most definitely I believe “I am Legend” could be read as a commentary of post WWII and the threat of nuclear annihilation. The setting of a post-apocalyptic world and Robert Neville as the last man on earth could be read as the result of nuclear destruction. The vampires themselves, as stated in the novel, are infected by a bacterium that just mysteriously appears and ends humanity. Maybe the bacterium is a result of a mutation due to radiation from nuclear war? I suppose it’s up to the reader to decide. After knowing Matheson’s background however, being a soldier in the war and witnessing the atrocities of the nuclear bomb, it’s likely that “I am Legend” is an attempt to address the horrors that Matheson saw.

      As far as the importance of the horror genre in American Literature, while researching its history, I learned that some scholars theorize that horror fiction started once human beings began to feel anxiety and uncertainty about life. After the Industrial Revolution, with life becoming much more complex and distressing for a lot of people, it’s thought by some that horror fiction was writer’s responses to the unknown variables of life such as mortality and the future of society. I think those same variables are still pondered greatly in American society today. This could possibly explain the fascination that many people have with reading or watching something that terrifies them; to feel like they have gained an upper-hand on that which is unknown so that they feel more prepared for what the future holds. Much of that is just speculation on my part. Once again, the human mind is a complex object to try and decipher. I hope this helps clarify my argument a bit.

      The book that I used in reference to some scholars theories on the beginnings of horror is titled “The closed space: horror literature and Western symbolism” By Manuel Aguirre.

  3. dad ⋅

    Hi Shelby,
    Very well written! I may have to read this novel now that you have given me insight to it’s content. Matheson was one of the two Mizzou grads who were honored last week for their achievements in journalism. You too can be a Richard Matheson if you so choose.

    Love You,

  4. arikacruz ⋅

    I would like to say I love your website! You give a great insight as to why Matheson should be included in today’s modern anthologies. After your presenation I definitely want to check out the list you suggested!

  5. Pingback: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (Bantam J2744 – 1964) | Vintage (and not so vintage) Paperbacks

  6. Lauren Thorp ⋅

    I just have one question, what age do you think you should be to read it?

    • Shelby Auxier ⋅

      It really depends on each persons maturity level. I read it for the first time at the age of 16. It affected me, more as a psychological novel than your typical vampire fiction, which is, I believe, Matheson’s intention. For the most part, I wouldn’t recommend this novel for anyone under the age of 14, at the earliest. Any younger than that, less mentally mature readers run the risk of missing the point of the entire novel.

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