Novella * Richard Matheson * Vampire Apocalypse * 1954
I Am Legend answers a question I’ve long had about vampires. If they’re so powerful and have the ability to propagate themselves indefinitely, oh, and are also immortal: how isn’t the world just completely populated by vampires? Like sure, have some free-range humans running around so you’s always got that good blood on hand. But otherwise, vamps should totes rule the school, ya know? Why am I talking like this? Probably because I just re-watched Adventure Time’s “Stakes,” which is way more fun than I Am Legend. As you might guess, the book in question didn’t do much for me and I’m having difficulty taking on a pseudo-scholastic tone. All right, regroup! Vampires. I can dig it.
The vampire menace of I Am Legend is distinctly different from the Dracula model. In fact, it has more in common with your typical zombie apocalypse scenario than anything else. An unknown cataclysm descended on earth, the primary symptoms of which were dust, mosquitos, and vampires. These vampires were (obviously) humans, and there are two varieties. They are either alive, or dead. Or undead, to be more specific. The living ones are vaguely self-aware and actively hunt sources of blood. The dead ones are more zombie-like, and are attracted to living things but are generally less smart and able than the living ones.
As the story opens, these vamps are roaming wild and free in the ruins of Los Angeles. Only one man, Robert Neville, remains free of the vampire scourge. He lives in his house, which he has fortified and turned into a utilitarian base of operations. During the day, he gathers resources, fixes up his house, does other survival activities, and hunts vampires. At night, he is besieged by hordes of bloodsucking monsters who are apparently too stupid to figure out a way to break into his house. So they chill on lawn and huck rocks and catcall him to come out. Meanwhile, Neville hides inside, cranks classical music and drinks himself silly. This is his life.
Eventually, some other things happen. Most importantly, Neville decides to stop drinking himself to death and endeavors to apply some effort into figuring out what happened to the world. The point of the story becomes rapidly apparent once Neville begins to seek knowledge about the vampire plague. This is to say that Matheson wishes to apply scientific rigor to the vampire legend. He takes the various tropes: garlic, crosses, sunlight, stakes, and has Neville test each of them with the scientific method. This is actually a very cool idea, so I think the reason that the rest of the story didn’t really click with me is due to Neville being kind of a dink that I don’t care nothin’ about.
There’s a little more to the story than one lone man surviving the apocalypse and doing research. Not much, mind you. There really isn’t a lot going on here. Neville does a little flashing back, and of course at some point he finds another living person seemingly untouched by the vampire plague and they interact. There’s a dog. Oh, and there is an incredibly bleak ending. This is not a happy book. The vampires don’t suddenly turn into cool guys and Neville does not jet ski off into the sunset with two hot vamp babes and a puppy. It’s a bummer.
So, I’m a little worried that this is an allegory about race. Or less specific but still troublesome, that I Am Legend is about the decline and fall of the proper, scientific American. Look, I know, it’s a vampire story. It’s a spooky apocalypse story. Yet there’s this aspect of the text and how the narrative itself plays out that makes me give it the old side-eye and go waaaait a minute. It would have been all well and good if the story had just ended with Neville succumbing to the onslaught of vampires. And in a way, that’s what happens. In the end, there are just too many vampires and too few uninfected humans left. Yet the thing is, the vampires are finally revealed to be sentient. Further, they’re shown to be intelligent to the point of forming a new vamp society. Neville, it turns out, has been unwittingly murdering citizens of this new Vampire World Order, and as such he’s obviously a dangerous menace who needs to be put down so that the new society can truly begin.
At the very least, there is a clear concern about certain aspects of American society that trouble Neville, and trouble the author. 1954 was not the most socially progressive year, but by this time there were certainly rumblings underneath the calm veneer of fifties American culture. The Beats were running around being gross and black people were starting to coalesce their political will against established fundamental racism. All that stuff is happening beneath the surface. Here comes I Am Legend depicting an uncertain future where the last White American Male is under siege from an unknowable threat, and finally gives way wholly to this unthinkable horror. Vampires, who suck out all that is good and human leaving only the withered husk of what was once alive, now turned into the same creature that destroyed him in the first place.
I don’t know Matheson’s intentions, obviously. By all accounts he seems to have been an okay dude. In addition, Neville isn’t exactly described as the most empathetic character. He’s a drunk. He’s a bit of a coward. He treats women poorly. And yet he’s a rigorous scientist, which is admirable, and he eventually lays off the booze. There’s still his detached cruelty to consider, and the thoroughness of his vampire killing. He is never shown to consider that the living vampires he murders are still sentient human beings. Just womp-womp, stake ‘em. Hope they still don’t have aspirations! Oh, but they do, and that’s what really brings Neville down. Turns out, the real monster was Neville all along. And still. Look at this, from a moment early on when drunk Neville is talking to himself:
“Friends, I come before you to discuss the vampire; a minority element if there ever was one, and there was one…. All he does is drink blood. Why, then, this unkind prejudice, this thoughtless bias? Why cannot the vampire live where he chooses? Why must he seek out hiding places where none can find him out? Why do you wish him destroyed? Ah, see, you have turned the poor guileless innocent into a haunted animal. He has no means of support, no measures for proper education, he has not the voting franchise. No wonder he is compelled to seek out a predatory nocturnal existence. Robert Neville grunted a surly grunt. Sure, sure, he thought, but would you let your sister marry one?”
Oh, fuuuuuck you. This is only a part of a longer, heavily ironic internal monologue that pretty much likens the vampires to black people. The idea underlying this passage is that, like black people, vampires are obviously not victims of anything other than their own inferior genetics. The whole monologue reads as parody of arguments which laid out the social, economic, and political reasons minorities where (are) being systematically oppressed. Neville’s final line here is basically ‘yeah, you don’t even believe all this bullshit you’re saying.’ But then – horror of horrors – the vampires are actually not the minority any longer. Eventually, they edge the white living man out, and take over the city of Los Angeles and the world.
Perhaps that’s a little heavy handed. After all, I’m looking at one aside. One internal, drunken monologue taken from early in the novel. Besides, that excerpt is as much a criticism of condescending, paternal liberalism as it is anything else. So, pulling back a bit, I Am Legend plays out like most other apocalypses. Swap out race for science, and you can see some of the same intent. Neville is determined to figure out the concrete reality underneath the vampire menace. Why? He seems to have some self-delusion that he could cure the disease, but he ultimately failed in this as he must have known he would. After all, even with knowledge, he still lacks the technological means to produce the end result of his findings. When the novel ends, science fails and myth prevails. This is the importance of the final line of the book, which is also the title. Before Neville, the last living human, dies, he comes to understand that he will be remembered not for his research and learning, but his systematic killing of vampires. His legacy is that of a story, not of science.