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I am Legend

Novel by Richard Matheson (USA) 1956.

Robert Neville is the last man alive on Earth. Dust storms spread the plague of vampirism and he finds himself the only person immune. He can only go out by day, while the vampires lie in comas; whilst at night they come to his house, throwing stones and driving him slowly mad. During daylight hours he kills off a lot of them, he studies the cause of their plague in the libraries and he dreams of a companion, someone else who might have survived. More than anything else he just tries to survive himself.

This is a short novel with little dialogue and, to be honest, not too much plot. Matheson merely takes a stunning concept and lets it develop, and develop it most certainly does: the ending is unexpected, astute and superb. Marketed as science fiction, this post-civilisation breakdown novel is nevertheless one of the milestones in twentieth century horror literature and one of the few novels that can honestly lay claim to being frightening.

Matheson's son, Richard Christian Matheson, who has followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a noted author, reviewed his father's masterpiece in Horror: 100 Best Books and noted freakish parallels to the AIDS virus: "I am Legend was set during a period between 1976 and 1979. The first, vague, unresponded-to reports about AIDS began to appear around 1980. It is, if nothing more, an evocative coincidence. Still, if Orwell's fictive predictions in the novel 1984 unsettle the nerves, what then should we make of what might be equally predictive, albeit equally fictive, visions contained within I am Legend?" Later in the same review, he continues: "Perhaps I am Legend, without my father's conscious awareness, might have been written not only to frighten us. It might have been written to prepare us." He has a point: is this a novel to rank among the likes of 1984, Brave New World, even The Running Man as a painfully accurate depiction of life in the not too distant future? Whatever its clairvoyant possibilities, it remains one of the evocative examples of a horrifying horror novel in existence.

Later filmed as The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price, and as The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston.

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