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Literature / I Am Legend

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"On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back."

A 1954 novel by Richard Matheson. Set after an outbreak of a viral plague that turns both living and dead into creatures resembling vampires, the plot follows Last of His Kind Robert Neville. An immune survivor, Neville spends his days hunting vampires, scavenging and struggling with loneliness, and the nights being taunted by undead vampires that keep swarming outside his house.

Essentially the Ur-Example of the Zombie Apocalypse genre. It was adapted to film four different times:

None of these movies used the ending of the original novel: the first (starring Vincent Price) is the only one even close to rest of the story, with the others being comparatively loose adaptations. The Will Smith movie did film the original ending, but Executive Meddling made them change it. Notably, the announced sequel is said to treat the original ending as canon.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Action Survivor: Before the apocalypse, Neville was a humble factory worker, and he only survives the plague and collapse of civilization through luck and determination.
  • Alas, Poor Villain:
    • Ben Cortman suffers an extremely violent death that disturbs Neville.
    • From Ruth's perspective, Neville is indeed guilty of murdering sentient members of her species. However, seeing that his actions were merely misguided and he was a decent man, she gives him the means of ending his life peacefully.
  • Apocalypse How: Around level 3 or 4, depending on how many types of animals aren't affected by the bacteria. The revelation that some of the infected have retained their humanity might push it back to level 2. Maybe
  • Becoming the Mask: Ruth can't bring herself to hate Neville like the other infected, after spending time with him pretending to be a fellow human survivor.
  • Cannot Cross Running Water: Neville tests this by constructing a trough to run water from a garden hose in his yard. Cortman sees it and gleefully jumps back and forth over it.
  • Cliffhanger Copout: The first part (January 1976) ends with Neville having barely escaped the vampires, but his car and generator are destroyed, severely limiting his mobility during the day and without a working freezer or lights, meaning he won't be able to hold out much longer. Then, at the start of the second part (March 1976), he is right back on his feet, as he found a new car and the generator wasn't so badly damaged after all, requiring only 1 morning to fix it.
  • Cuteness Proximity: After spending almost two years completely alone and besieged, Neville encounters a dog - the first non-vampire creature he met in all that time. He keeps on trying to befriend the dog and capture it to lessen his loneliness, acting like a giddy child each time he makes progress.
  • Darkest Hour: Neville's handwatch stopped. It's past dusk. The vampires already left their hideouts, while he tries to reach home. Which he left wide open, expecting to return few hours ago. While he does manage to get back into his house despite the odds, the vampires wreck his car, effectively leaving him unable to go far from the house, and destroy his generator, leaving the house, and his appliances, without power.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Despite being completely alone, Neville doesn't stop talking and thinking aloud, solely to lessen the pressure of not having any companion.
    Some things could go to pot, but not his health, he thought. Then why don't you stop pouring alcohol into yourself? he thought. Why don't you shut the hell up? he thought.
  • Defiant to the End: The main reason why Neville is alive and keeps kicking is spite. He knows there are thousands of vampires out there to get him and nothing pisses them off more than the fact he's still alive. So despite being a suicidal mess, he makes damn sure to keep living. When he's captured in the end and prepared for a show execution, he commits suicide rather than give his captors what they want, as a final middle finger to vampires.
  • Doing In the Wizard: The mythological traits of vampirism are all defined as either caused by the vampirus bacillum, or as a psychological reaction to the infected's realizing they've become a creature out of a pulp novel. On one occasion, Neville observes a vampire climbing a lamppost and jumping off, and presumes that the individual believed itself to be able to turn into a bat.
  • Downer Ending: All of Neville's efforts are for naught, as the vampires have evolved to the point that they can stave off the more feral urges of their affliction and have even developed a new society. This means many of the vampires Neville had killed were, in fact, innocent people and he will never be accepted in the society because of this. The only silver lining comes from Ruth giving him a suicide pill to end his life peacefully before the vampires have him executed, but he will forever be remembered as a monster.
  • The Dreaded: Neville is this to the Vampires. Even when captured, many are terrified just by the sight of him.
  • Driven to Suicide: There are a few times where Robert contemplates just putting himself out of his misery, but one time is especially notable. After he barely makes it home alive, which was trashed in the meantime by the vampires, he suffers a Heroic BSoD. In the following outburst of rage, he picks up his two handguns - which he knows are worthless against vampires - and goes gun blazing on the porch of his house. When he runs out of ammo and is swarmed, he has a last-second change of mind and crawls his way back inside the house. Not because he wants to live or is afraid of dying, but out of spite.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Initially, Neville is one step away from outright alcoholism as a way to cope with his situation. He recalls how he spent the first few days after his wife died (and he already lost his daughter a few days prior) in alcohol-induced coma, only waking up to get hammered again. He probably did that again after he had to stake Virginia and bury her again. It also gets particularly bad in part 2, when his research yields no results, only more questions, and he begins to doubt his abilities as a researcher. He stays drunk for 2 days straight, and only snaps out of his depression when he sees an unaffected stray dog near his house.
  • Feral Vampires: While not entire mindless, the vampires are more animalistic than the standard modern depiction, though they still show some flashes of intelligence. The "feral" aspect goes as far as the book being cited as creating the zombie apocalypse genre, despite explicitly having blood-sucking, sun-killed, garlic-fearing vampires.note 
  • Flashbacks: This time showing how his wife succumbed to the infection, and forced to drive to a government bonfire to burn his dead daughter. And then when Virginia came back to him as a vampire.
  • Genre Savvy: Zig-Zagged. Neville knows and tests some of the folk remedies against vampires. But it still took him a few months to realise it's easier and more efficient to just drag comatose vampires out into the open for the sun to kill them. He face-palms himself upon figuring this out.
  • Ghost City: Los Angeles has a human population of one.
  • Go Mad from the Apocalypse: Neville is one of the earliest examples in literature. He has three distinctive stages of his madness: the initial depression that drives him into reckless, suicidal tendencies, the eventual hardened behaviour and ultimately, after a really long Time Skip, he's Madden Into Misanthropy by the sheer loneliness and lack of any interaction with any other human beings.
  • Good All Along: The partial vampires, that Neville didn't even know existed to begin with.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Neville argues that the sentient vampire society enjoyed killing the undead vampires. Ruth, however, argues that Neville also enjoyed killing. Ruth rationalizes the brutality as an inevitable part of a new civilization.
  • Guns Akimbo: Deconstructed. In one of his Sanity Slippages, Neville picks up his two pistols and goes gun blazing on his own porch. He is almost instantly swarmed, even before running out of bullets, and barely makes it alive back inside.
  • Guns Are Worthless: Bullets only make entry holes, quickly "glued back" by the fluid the vampires are full of, making small caliber rounds utterly useless for harming them.
  • Heel Realisation: A rather poignant one in the ending, as Neville realizes, with horror, why the people who came after him are about to execute him- he was killing vampires who were beginning to stave off the worst urges, and thus terrified the survivors - and civilization's last hope.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Neville eventually discovers that some of the infected people have discovered a means of suppressing more dangerous effects of the vampire bacteria, and that many of the vampires he's been killing during his daytime hunts were fully sentient and innocent people. He's pretty much their monster of legend, thus the title.
  • Humans Are Cthulhu: How the partial vampires view Neville. In their eyes, he's an unstoppable monster from the old world slaughtering dozens of innocents during the days for seemingly no reason at all, and through his deeds, he becomes a monster of legends the same way vampires were for the humans, hence the title.
  • The Immune: Neville's immune to the plague.
  • Immune to Bullets: The dead vampires (ones not infected while alive) have this, due to their wounds healing instantaneously, whereas stakes (and other impalings) keep the wound open.
  • Ignore the Fanservice: It's stated that some of the female vampires will expose themselves in an attempt to lure Neville out. He doesn't take the bait.
  • Kill It with Fire: The government ordered the bodies of everyone who died to be burned in huge bonfires, in order to stop the spread of the bacteria that caused the vampire plague (since that was the only way they knew that could kill the bacteria).
  • Last of His Kind: Neville is apparently the last uninfected human in the world, due to being The Immune.
  • Monstrous Cannibalism: The vampires outside Neville's house often attack and feed on each other.
  • Neon Sign Hideout: Played for drama for a change. Every vampire in LA knows where the last normal human in the city lives, so each dusk the vampires start flocking around Neville's house.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: The book was published in 1954 but takes place from 1976 to 1979. Normally such a big gap would lead to a 20 Minutes into the Future scenario with some sci-fi tech mixed into an otherwise contemporary setting, yet there's no mention of any technology more advanced than what was in use at the time the book was published.
  • Oh, Crap!: Never in history of horror literature more has been achieved by four simple words, right when a chapter ends.
    The watch had stopped.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: Ominous classical music more like. Look up the full names to the music Neville plays to keep his mind off the vampires; Scönberg Transfigured Night, The Year of the Plague, Bernstein Symphony No. 2 (The Age of Anxiety), Schubert Symphony No. 4 (Tragic)... Emphasis on ominous, as he uses the music to drown out the hell the vampires break loose outside his house every night.
  • The Only One Allowed to Defeat You: Neville seems to adopt this stance towards his vampirised neighbor, even if there isn't anyone else out there to defeat him. When the partial vampires get to him first, Neville naturally doesn't take it very well.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: It's stated the vampires are dumb. Not zombie-dumb, but still idiots, running on instinct alone. Ben Cortman is an exception to this, and Neville latches on to finding out why to keep him sane. He finds:
    • Almost all of the traditional wards against vampires are apparently psychological. Garlic may or may not be a sort of anti-placebo effect, though Neville notices vampires coughing and choking whenever they're hit with garlic powder. Neville further hypothesizes things like the cross and mirror to be a result of extreme self-loathing. The cross has no effect on his Jewish neighbor, but as soon as he gets out the Star of David and a Torah, Ben begins panicking and doing everything he can to get away from the symbols.
    • The vampires may be believing their own pop culture. Neville witnesses one vampire leap off from a street light and hypothesizes he was trying to turn into a bat.
    • Vampirism is caused by a bacteria. There are two distinct variations: those who were infected while still alive, and infected who have reanimated from the bacteria. Living vampires are vulnerable to everything a human is vulnerable to, but dead vampires' lack of a heartbeat causes a vacuum that seals off any wound that isn't large (such as small arms fire). Hence why stakes are so effective: they force the wound open and bypasses the vampire's regeneration.
    • Dead vampires crumble into dust when staked or otherwise killed. Neville remembers talking to a black gravekeeper who talked about vacuum-preserved corpses - any introduction of air would cause the corpses to crumble into dust. (The author may have been speculating about methods of preservation that were not yet in practice here.)
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Your daughter and wife are slowly succumbing to an unknown disease, while you are perfectly fine yourself. Nobody knows what's happening with them and you can only watch as they get worse and worse. Until one day you have to dump your daughter's body into a massive, government-run bonfire due to biohazard. And before you even have any time to recover from that, your wife expires too.
  • Product Placement:
    • Willy's Jeep station wagon is Neville's vehicle of choice. It gets smashed later, after which he replaces it with exact same model. Ironically, the car was discontinued from production in 1965, while the book opens in 1976.
    • Sears is the main source of tools for Neville - he even loots a lathe from it. The lathe gets wrecked along with the wagon.
  • Ridiculously Cute Critter: The mongrel little dog Neville found and tried to tame.
  • Sanity Slippage: Neville gets dangerously close to tossing himself to the vampires several times.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Contained within a single chapter (and involving a literal dog to boot!) that thoroughly cements how hopeless this book's world is. While Neville spends weeks painstakingly endeavoring to gain the trust of the lone dog he discovers living in his neighborhood, the dog becomes very ill. He nonetheless manages to bring into his house to treat it, which earns him a lick on the hand. The chapter soon ends on the line: "In a week the dog was dead."
  • The Siege: Neville's house is besieged by endless hordes of vampires. Every. Single. Night.
  • Staking the Loved One: In the book, Neville has to do this to his wife after she had already died from the plague and he buried her body because he couldn't bear to burn her like he had to do to his daughter. She then comes back as a vampire trying to kill him and he has to kill her all over again, this time presumably by staking.
  • Survivor Guilt: Robert has this to the point of suffering several breakdowns.
  • Talking to Themself: Obviously, since Robert is apparently the last human alive and has nobody else to talk with. The constant, deadpan monologues are in fact the main source of humor in the book.
  • Tap on the Head: Ruth knocks Neville out with a wooden mallet after he discovers she is infected. Despite getting hit three times, he suffers only a splitting headache upon regaining consciousness.
  • Technically-Living Vampire: People infected with the vampire bacteria while still alive remain alive, though the bacterium can also reanimate corpses.
  • There Is Another: Subverted. When Ruth comes along, it appears that Neville might not be the only unaffected person still alive... And then it turns out that Ruth is The Mole for the partial vampires sent to spy on his defenses. Any and all survivors succumbed to the disease, and only stave it off by way of medicine.
  • Time-Passage Beard: Neville stops shaving and grows a beard during a two year Time Skip.
  • Title Drop: At the very end, no less. The meaning of the title is also intensely creepy; see He Who Fights Monsters above for details.
  • Took a Level in Badass: After a modest Time Skip, Neville goes from being a normal guy who happens to be immune to the vampire bacteria and uses alcohol to cope to a muscled vampire-slaying beard-toting badass. in that time he's killed numerous partial vampires and figured out their weaknesses and origin. Though his social skills have gone out the window from so many years of not talking to anyone. He also starts going Jack Bauer on his neighbor, what with the chair and the Torah.
  • Unbuilt Trope: Not only is it the Ur-Example of the zombie apocalypse, but it also deconstructs the notion of the last human survivors trying their best to preserve the species. In this world, the monsters have become the norm, and the last human is simply a relic of the past.
  • Vampire Hunter: Robert Neville hunts vampires during the day by staking them when they sleep.
  • Van Helsing Hate Crimes: Neville assumes that all of the vampires are bloodthirsty killers. It's only at the end of the story that he learns that some of them have actually retained their sanity, and they view him the same way he views the infected.
  • The Virus: Well, a bacterial infection, but other than that, the trope is played straight.
  • Working-Class Hero: Unlike all the adaptations, where Neville was made into a doctor and even an officer, in the book he's but a factory worker who self-taught himself into being a scientist. It's made into a plot point with all the pain, time and effort it takes for him to educate himself and gain proper lab practice, or even operate a microscope efficiently.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: When he comes across an apparently unaffected dog out in the sun, Neville practically gets taken over with Cuteness Proximity as he plans to win over the thing and keep it as a pet. It doesn't end well.
  • Zombie Apocalypse: Pretty much the Ur-Example, despite being written fourteen years before the modern pop culture zombie was introduced. The vampires act more like the popular depiction of zombies than traditional vampires.
    • It's been said that George A. Romero got his idea for Night of the Living Dead (1968) after reading the book. This is a myth; much like his Resident Evil script, Romero never actually experienced I Am Legend himself, he had someone explain it to him instead, which explains why Night of the Living Dead resembles the work in so many superficial ways without actually containing any of its subtext.