I Am Legend: Who’s the Monster?

Hi gang! This is the first of a series of horror-related posts I’ll be doing for my Reading In Genre: Horror Monsters course for Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction.  Dishing on horror isn’t really new to this blog (see my rant on creepy mannequins), but I’ll be getting a little more in depth with some of these stories. I’m sure plenty of ranting on both wonderful and terrible things will still occur. And so will spoilers, just so you know! So let’s begin with a super classic: Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend.

legend

This story is a classic vampire tale, originally published in 1954, that tells the story of Robert Neville, who may or may not be the last human on earth. I previously read this story back in my ultra Goth days when I devoured anything and everything vampire. I vaguely remember not really caring for this story when I first read it, thinking it wasn’t romantic enough for my tastes at the time. Now, older and maybe wiser, I find on my second read that I still don’t care for it. I respect it as a classic in its genre, one of the staples that fueled countless other stories and added to the wealth of vampire lore. The concept and theme of the story really hit deep (I’ll get into those in a minute). My main problem with it?

I don’t like Robert Neville.

Maybe in the beginning I felt for him, drudging through his day, going through his daily routine. He’s extremely meticulous about taking care of his home, his supplies, everything. I guess you would have to be, to make sure you can survive the nightly onslaught of the perpetually annoying vampires that throw rocks at your house (no supernatural strength or quickness in these baddies; thankfully no sparkles either). But I feel like Neville’s alcohol dependency and his reactions to the female vampires are just overly cliche. I suppose Neville is more the example than the cliche, considering how old this story is. But I think for modern readers it just doesn’t translate as well. He drinks himself into a stupor several times, to avoid thinking about his situation. Not an atypical reaction given the situation, but he doesn’t just drink. He drinks, then dramatically stumbles about cursing the vampires, his life, gets mad, inevitably smashes something or cuts himself, then goes to bed. I can plausibly see how someone would react to possibly being the only human left on the earth by drinking lots and lots of booze. But it makes me wonder if Neville had this tendency before the plague infected everyone. He also gets pretty violent when he’s drunk too. Did he ever have violent tendencies, or any history of drunken rampages before all this, or is this just a byproduct of the end of the human race?

Neville is also overly dramatic in his reactions to the female vampires in the beginning of the story. One of the reasons he ends up getting drunk all the time is to forget about the women outside, trying to draw him out by flashing him or posing lewdly when he’d look out the peephole. Okay, I understand that we all have needs. I get that. But in this first part of the book, when he’s over-reacting to these women and feeling the urges crawl through him and it’s almost too much, it’s only been FIVE MONTHS since he’s been alone. Now my boyfriend, the always-insightful Natty Ultra, tells me that this is perfectly natural. Maybe it’s my gut reaction as a woman reading this that makes me think “c’mon dude, really?” I wonder if simply just taking care of business on his own would have helped Neville’s urges. But again, this was also written in the 50s, so I guess mentioning things like, ahem, taking care of one’s self, probably wasn’t kosher to write about. I do have to mention that later on, as the years go by and Neville becomes more and more solitary, he loses the creep/drunk factor some, and goes for more of the hermit look. And he doesn’t even try to make any advances sexually at Ruth when he finally does talk to someone, though he still acts a bit like a creeper. But at that point it had been a few years since he’d had contact with anyone, so I’d give him a pass.

In the end, I don’t know if we’re really supposed to like Robert Neville, or root for him. In the context of monsters, obviously we start out thinking that the vampires are monsters. But Neville goes around on a daily killing spree, dispatching death to every vamp he comes across, even after we find out that there are “living” and “dead” vampires. So he’s effectively killing people, even though those people may want to eat him too. Does that make him the monster? By the end of the story, when the living infected are trying to rebuild society, they certainly see this artifact from a time long dead out killing their people to be a monster. And isn’t that what the vampire essentially is? An artifact, from a time long dead, that shows up and tries to eat us. Neville thinks he’s the prey, so he turns into the hunter, and teaches the infected people to fear him enough that they have to publicly execute him by the story’s end. Even though I never liked Neville to begin with, I’m glad he at least gets to go with dignity, and close the circle that he left open.

The monster has to die at the end.

 

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5 Comments

  1. I love the point you make about the end, how Neville is essentially the vampire. I didn’t make that connection, or rather I didn’t take it far enough. Throughout the whole book, Neville thinks the vampires are the freaks of nature, when really he is as the last uninfected man on earth. Keeping in mind that Neville becomes the monster at the end, does this help explain why he isn’t a particularly likable character? I can’t think of a true monster that’s exactly likable. They’re cool, interesting, and badass, but not all that likable. Maybe if Neville was a truly likable character, his ending would have left readers upset rather than bring them full circle.

  2. I think it’s investing that you brought up Neville’s disinterest in Ruth in his hermit phase. I actually flound Neville’s constant assurance that he was not attracted to Ruth to do quite the opposite. In this he was an unreliable narrator for me. He seemed to protest too much, and most if his physical observations of Ruth focused on her femininity. I found his interactions with Ruth to be very creepy.

  3. Wow, poor Neville. Everyone really hates this guy. Granted, I pointed out some really terrible things he does in my blog post, but I still don’t dislike him or the book as much as most people in the course so far. Interesting.

    I also like the fact that in your view (and I suppose in my own) Neville is the real monster, and I agree, he really must die at the end. Great post!

  4. You bring up an interesting point about Neville’s past life – was he always violent? Did he always drink heavily? It makes you wonder how much of a rose-colored tint has been put into his memories of his wife and daughter, or even of Cortman.


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