I Am Legend is a difficult book to categorize. At first glance, it’s a vampire novel; an accurate characterization, because yeah, there are vampires in it. But the deeper meaning and metaphors behind them, the structure of the story, and the situation the main character finds himself in, make it feel more like a zombie story. But even then, the focus isn’t so much on the creatures, but on the main character and his inner struggles, making it more of a sappy drama. You could even argue convincingly that it’s science fiction.
Given these overlapping categories, and the fact that I Am Legend came out in 1954 and has influenced subsequent generations of horror fiction, it could easily feel stale and cliche reading it today. It doesn’t; I Am Legend still feels fresh and new, even to someone like me who has seen and read almost every piece of horror fiction released since I was born (and a lot from before that, too).
Part of its brilliance has to do with Matheson’s writing, which gets right into the main character’s head, and feels just detailed and realistic enough to relate to. There is also some ineffable eeriness to it. Certain mental images – like pudgy Ben Cortman standing outside, constantly yelling at Neville to come out – stick with me in a way that other authors’ don’t, for some reason. I Am Legend should be required reading for anyone even remotely interested in the horror genre.
A note about the upcoming movie of I Am Legend starring Will Smith: WTF? Judging from the trailer, the movie has almost nothing to do with the book. Will Smith can be an OK actor, but I really can’t picture him pulling off the depressed, alcoholic, sexually frustrated, elderly Robert Neville from the book. No, I picture the Will Smith version romping around destroyed New York with his dog buddy (who must have had a good agent, because his role in the movie seems significantly expanded from his book counterpart), sharing feel-good moments, screaming “Aw HELL naw!” whenever he sees a vampire, then punching them in the face and spouting hilarious lines like “welcome to Earth”. And that is really the opposite sort of character from the one in the book. I like a good end-of-the-world movie, and I’d probably be excited about this one if it didn’t have the title “I Am Legend.” It’d be better if it had only claimed to be loosely based on the novel, and had a title like…oh I dunno… “Fresh Prince of the Entire World.”