Warning: Major Plot Spoilers Near The End
Yet again, I've been breaking the rules. This time, it wasn't on purpose! But I went into reading I Am Legend
knowing the ending, knowing the twist. Years ago, you see, my husband
had wanted to talk about the book, probably when the most recent
adaptation to movie form had come out, and I am well known for not
reading horror, so it wasn't an unreasonable assumption that I would
never read this.
So, wrong, in the long run, but it made reading
this for the first time a very different experience than it would be for
someone who was going into it cold.
And I think it made the
book more horrifying, not less. Knowing what I knew, many actions
suddenly appeared in a new light. I would recognize how someone would
interpret it the first time, but then have the chill down my spine that
knowing the narrative twist created.
In this book, Robert
Neville is possibly the last human left alive. Well, that's not quite
true. The last uninfected human left alive, anyway. At what point do you
cease to be human? What are the defining characteristics? The rest of
the human race, as far as he knows, has contracted an illness that
closely mimics vampirism. (I'm not marking that with a spoiler, that
comes out in the first five to ten pages, and I'm of the firm opinion
that stuff that happens that early needs no spoiler tag.) Some have
died, and are reanimated, walking at night. Many others are infected
Neville at first works only on the simple mechanics of
staying alive - it takes all of his time and mental energy, not that he
has much mental energy, having lost a wife and daughter to the plague.
Eventually, he turns his attention to science, and discovers certain
things about the plague and why it works the way it does, although his
efforts on some fronts fail to explain certain aspects - there seems to
be a potential mingling of the viral and the supernatural.
I Am Legend
is the story of a harried, traumatized man, trying to survive, and
lashing out at those who nightly try to kill him, while he hunkers down
in his barricaded house. That story, in and of itself, is interesting.
It is the narrative twist that Matheson puts on it at the end that
elevates it into something more.
I want to discuss some things about the ending, so let's get into spoiler territory.
the end of the book, Neville is captured by the newly forming society
of those who are infected but alive, and is sentenced to death. He realizes
that he has, in fact, become the Boogeyman of this new society. If they are
all that is left, he is the monster, preying on them while they sleep,
particularly killing women (the book makes a point of this), dragging
people from their beds and murdering them, so that when others wake up,
all they find are the dead bodies of those they knew and perhaps loved.
only is there no place for him, but there is the recognition that he
had decided they were not human and deserving of summary execution, but
they saw themselves as still people, bloodsucking tendencies
But this brings me to the most horrifying part
of the book, one that is only vaguely hinted at, but I'm pretty sure I'm
reading this right. Neville's wife died. He couldn't bear to take her
to the firepits where, at that point, the authorities were mandating all
bodies be taken. He buried her. She came back, and tried to kill him.
all pretty clear. What's less overt is that, as far as I can tell, when
he was able to disable her again, he took her to a mausoleum, nailed
her into a coffin, and CONTINUES TO NAIL HER INTO THAT COFFIN every time
she makes progress on breaking out. He visits, and checks on the nails.
There is an earlier scene where he wonders if he'll have enough coffin
nails, and this is the only use for which they are mentioned.
you have a man who, from the perspective of the vampires, preys on them
while they sleep, steals family members out of their beds and
leaves their dead and decaying bodies behind, keeps a woman trapped in a
coffin eternally...yeah, he makes a pretty good boogeyman.
Because we've taken the ride with him, that's an unsettling realization.
also why the people have to remain vampires, not get turned into
zombies, or mutants, or whatever. Nothing else gives you that time
period where they are quiescent, sleeping during the day, unable to wake
up, while he stalks among them. But I'm not sure Hollywood's ever going
to be up for that ending anyway.
I found I Am Legend
unsettling to read, in a good way, and the rest of the stories in the
version I had to be entertaining. And that twist is one of the all-time
greats. I have a hard time thinking of a better.