‘I Am Legend’ by Richard Matheson (1954)

I can be a cynical and jaded old goat at times, I’ll admit that. A particular bugbear of mine is reading a book that is reckoned to be a ‘classic’, be it by the horror fraternity, or the literary world at large, and then wondering what the Hell all the fuss was about. So many of them are…well, disappointments, if I’m being honest. I suspect, in my more pessimistic moments, that a lot of these books have been around for so long, and been so widely (and wildly) acclaimed, that people are loathe to admit that maybe – just maybe – they’re not actually that good.

Or, they just haven’t read them at all, but want to appear well-read and worldly-wise.

Thankfully, neither is the case with I Am Legend.

I went into this book already knowing what the big reveal at the end would be since, like Citizen Kane’s ‘Rosebud’, it has become part of that myth-pool in which we all dip our toes from time to time. Even so, it was a breathtaking read, an emotional rollercoaster, and I can only imagine what it would have been like for a reader at the time, who didn’t already know what the payoff was.

Robert Neville is one of the great journeyman heroes of all time, riddled with flaws and fuelled by determination, as much as he is by hatred. Your heart goes out to him as the world – such as it is – piles heap after heap of excrement on him. He doesn’t shrug it off, he bows under the weight of one catastrophe after another, but he keeps on moving doggedly forward.

There are a couple of episodes in the book that are truly heartbreaking (the bit with the dog springs to mind – I don’t want to spoil it for any potential readers, but if you’ve read the book, you know what I’m talking about), and I’m not ashamed to admit wiping away a manly tear or two but, hey, at least it all works out in the end, right, when Neville earns his happy ending?

Ha! Yeah, right.

The story is wonderful, beautifully plotted and cunningly paced. Matheson doles out little parcels of hope to his protagonist, before snatching everything away – time and time again. Neville faces everything with a captivating mix of depression and stoicism, right to the end. I’m undecided if his cycle of behaviour should be seen as an inspiration or a warning, but it is certainly captivating.

If you haven’t read this book yet, then you need to. It took me 35 years to get round to it, and I’m so glad I finally took the plunge. Already, after one reading, it’s leapt into my top three of vampire novels.

It certainly deserves the label of ‘classic’.

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