An unstoppable plague has devastated the world’s population, killing millions and transforming the survivors into ravenous night-walkers, thirsty for blood. No one is left unscathed. No man, no woman, no child.
Except for Robert Neville.
Miraculously immune to the plague, Neville is a hunter-gatherer by day – stalking the undead as they sleep, and collecting any useful supplies he can get his hands on. By night, he barricades himself in his house, hoping for dawn. His chances of surviving this murderous new world grow smaller by the hour, and he knows it’s only a matter of time before they catch him. Or drive him insane. Whichever happens first.
Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is another book I became acquainted with via film. Francis Lawrence’s 2007 version (starring Will Smith) impressed me a great deal with its tautly-crafted story, complex themes, and profound biblical imagery. It also got a fair amount of flack from fans of the novel, who dismissed it as “yet another Hollywood adaption run amuck.”
I’ve experienced both now – the movie and the book. And though they differ from one another quite a bit, I can honestly say I have a deep appreciation for both. I appreciate the movie for its sophisticated rumination on grace, faith, and redemption. I appreciate the book for its intriguing scientific-backdrop, gripping psychological study, and for the clever (and grimly ironic) nature of its conclusion.
Matheson drops us straight into the heart of the story with one of the best opening lines I’ve had the pleasure of reading:
On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.
The uncertainty of survival – and hints to the dreadful consequences of a single misstep on Neville’s part – are both ominously present in that sentence. And as we read on, we feel a perversely compelling certainty that this story can’t have a “happily ever after” sort of ending.
It doesn’t. I won’t spoil the finale for you; suffice it to say, it’s pretty bleak. Not hopeless per se, but not exactly hopeful, either. It does, however, prove fitting within the story’s (already bleak) context – and you’ll never look at the title the same way again.
As the tale progresses, Matheson – through the character of Neville – establishes a fairly plausible scientific explanation for the vampires’ existence. I thoroughly enjoyed that part, and if that sort of stuff interests you, I’m sure you’ll find it fascinating.
Most interesting (for me, at least) was “watching” Neville cope with his aloneness. For years, his thoughts have been his only company. No contact with another living being whatsoever. That, combined with the constant threat of violence and death, has begun to take its toll.
To further complicate matters, the vampires that hunt him aren’t just any vampires – they were once his friends and neighbors. And they still recognize him, even in their crazed, plague-ridden state. When darkness falls, they surround his house and call to him: “Come out, Neville! Come out!” Night after night after bloody night. That’ll mess with your head…
Neville’s cynicism and outright despair are not surprising, but I couldn’t help but wonder how a man with faith in God might respond differently under the same circumstances. Neville has nothing outside of himself to turn to, because he believes there isn’t any such thing. There’s just him. And the vampires. And the certainty of a dark and lonely end.
Yet what might a Christian say to this? Psalm 121:
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: He that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: He shall preserve thy soul. The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.
Do I recommend I Am Legend? Yes. It’s not particularly fun reading, but it is engaging and thought-provoking, and will give rise to plenty of interesting discussion. I should add that it’s not a book for younger readers: aside from the disturbing premise, it also has several scenes of violence, a smattering of language, and some sexual themes.