In 1954 Richard Matheson published a ground-breaking story “I Am Legend”. The story is about the last man on Earth, Robert Neville. The year is 1975, a virus starts to spread after the latest war is finally over. The speed of the virus is phenomenal. Science can’t find the cure fast enough, as people drop dead everywhere.
But, then the dead don’t stay down. They begin to rise, with a thirst for blood. They seem to follow the typical vampire ethos. They are destroyed by sunlight. Allergies to garlic, subsist on blood. If they were Christians, crosses stop them. If they were Jewish the Torah stops them, etc. Bullets can’t kill them, only stakes. Their bodies must be cremated.
Robert seems to be the only person on Earth who is immune to the virus, so he tries to understand the disease as he kills vampires during the day, and barricades himself in his home at night. He conducts experiments, reads scientific books from the library, as well as mythological books on vampire lore.
One day, he finds a woman. Hoping to find out she isn’t infected, he takes her to his house. There he tells her all he has discovered about the virus in the three years he had been living on his own. Although he hasn’t found a cure, he knows what caused it, and what its effects are. But, before he can tell her, the new horror he found while testing her blood, she knocks him out and runs. Later, a group of living vampires captures him. Though he has lost his fear of the vampires, these are afraid of him and want him dead. In the end, he confirms that he is the last man of his race, and at his death, he will be a legend, as vampires are now.
“I Am Legend” opens with Robert Neville inspecting his house on a cloudy day. He checked the windows to be sure the boards still covered them. Sometimes after a particularly violent attack, the boards would come loose. Robert kept a close eye on the sky, they came at night, so cloudy days made him want to rush. He wanted to get back inside his house.
He checked his hothouse and water tank. Sometimes, they would throw rocks over the fence he erected around them, and some might make it through the nets over the top, so he would have to replace the panes. But, today, the only damage was a loose board on a window and the cracked mirror on the door. Robert decided not to replace the mirror again, he will put cloves of garlic, instead. Although the mirrors were sometimes effective, the garlic always worked.
After finishing his repairs, Robert walked through the rooms of his home. It is not decorated as warmly as before. Now, it is practical. A room stockpiled with canned goods, a full freezer, and a work area with a vice and band saw that he uses to make stakes. But, his generator is one of his most prized possessions, and his most temperamental. It may need replacing, soon. Robert spent the afternoon making garlic necklaces to place around the places he wants them to avoid. He always hung them on the outside of his windows, even though they were protected by plywood.
Listening to records on his stereo filled the lonely hours. So did alcohol. As he prepared dinner, he listened to classical music and watched the clock. The sun set early today, at six-twenty-five Ben Cortman began to call for him to come out.
After dinner, while Robert tried to relax with a whiskey and soda, and a book on physiology, more gathered on his lawn. Soon, he had to turn the stereo up, trying to drown out their calls and the rude offers of the women. Those were the hardest because he was lonely. It has been five months since the nightly torture had begun. The song he plays on his stereo, appropriately, is Verklarte Nacht (Transfigured Night). He turns the music up even louder and manages to read one more page, before giving in. Robert puts in earplugs and goes to bed. That night he dreamed of Virginia.
At dawn, Robert saw the last of them heading back to their dark holes. After breakfast, he left to run errands. One of those errands is to gather up the bodies from his front lawn and take them to the never ending fire in the center of the town. It has been going since June 1975. They always turned on each other during their frenzies, and the weakest were drained. Usually, women. At the market, he finds two of them, upstairs. He uses two of his stakes on them. At Sears, he found five of them in the basement and used five more stakes. By the time he reaches home, he realizes he has used forty-seven stakes.
Robert spends time every evening researching the vampires. The government called it a virus. And it spread so quickly, that research could not keep up. The scientists denied the existence of vampires until the end. Robert knows that’s what they are. In his research, he has tried various methods of stopping them. He has found garlic and sunlight to be very effective, but mirrors and crosses are not always as effective. Invariably, almost every night, he wondered why he didn’t just give in. Become one of them. He thinks it may be because he hopes to find more survivors. Someone else who was immune to the virus. But, until then, he will keep carting the bodies away and staking them while their numbers dwindle. And every night, he will continue to drink.
As Robert drinks he considers the vampires and feels some compassion for them, “But are his needs any more shocking than the needs of other animals and men? Are his deeds more outrageous than the deeds of the parent who drained the spirit from his child? The vampire may foster quickened heartbeats and levitated hair. But is he worse than the parent who gave to society a neurotic child who became a politician? Is he worse than the manufacturer who set up belated foundations with the money he made by handing bombs and guns to suicidal nationalists? Is he worse than the distiller who gave bastardized grain juice to stultify further the brains of those who sober, were incapable of a progressive thought? Is he worse then, than the publisher who filled the ubiquitous racks with lust and death wishes? Really, now, search your soul, lovie – is the vampire so bad? All he does is drink blood?” Robert goes on, in his drunken speech, to talk about the prejudices upon the minorities, in this case, the vampires. After some more drunken ramblings, and practicing his dwindling self-control, Robert passes out on his bed.
The next day, Robert, coming closer to a mental breakdown, gets in his car and takes off. Although, when he left he was unsure where he would go, he is not surprised to find himself at his wife, Virginia’s tomb. He spends hours there, missing her and wishing he could have laid their daughter’s body near hers.
By the time Robert makes it back home, he has realized his watch stopped and he doesn’t know how late it is. He left his garage door open. He sees them in his yard. When he drives down his street, they turn as one and start after him. They chase his car and he narrowly avoids being ripped from his car when it stalls after running over a few of them. Robert drives slowly so they will follow him away from his house, then he speeds up, stops in front of his house and almost makes it to the door when he is attacked. He manages to fight them off and then retreats into the safety of his home. But they have damaged his generator, no power.
Having gotten so close to catching him, the vampires are in a frenzy. Suddenly there is a crash, and when Robert looks outside, he sees they have turned over his car. As he watches them tear his car apart, his fury builds. Then when he realizes that with the power off, his food in the freezer and refrigerator will probably spoil, he loses his temper. Robert grabs his guns, throws open the front door and opens fire. Their bodies absorb the bullets, like throwing rocks into a tar pit. When he runs out of bullets, Robert starts to fight them. But, he soon realizes the futility of his actions and makes it back inside his house.
Robert has repaired his house, this time, he added soundproofing and enjoyed the silence. He had to steal a car from an abandoned garage to make it to Santa Monica where he was able to find a station wagon like the one that was destroyed. It was worth it to him, though, because that was the brand he knew how to repair if it broke down. He discovered his generator had only been disconnected, but he replaced it, anyway, with a more efficient model. During his days of repair, he drank less. He began to feel more productive. Since his windows were covered night and day, Robert installed air conditioning and place a mural on his wall of a Canadian landscape. He spent a lot of his evenings listening to music and gazing at the mural, imagining he and his family were there.
Looking back brings Robert pain, but, he decides he that may be the only way to get some answers at what brought about the vampire plague. He remembers the dust. After the bombs fell, the dust storms came almost every day. Robert thought about his wife, Virginia, and daughter, Kathy. Their trouble breathing, and sickness. Then their deaths. Kathy was first, and the law made him take her small body to the cremation pit. The same one he took the bodies he found on his lawn too. But, when Virginia died, he refused to take her to the pit. Instead, he buried her in the graveyard. But, she came back as a vampire, and he had to stake her, putting her in the tomb she lays in now.
At the time his wife had passed, they thought that the virus may have been spread by mosquitoes or fleas. But, now, he wonders if the dust storms could have been a cause, too. He also wonders why they want blood. Robert decided to run some experiments. He filled syringes with garlic and used them on vampires. Didn’t work. The crosses worked. But, only as a deterrent. Some of them hid in the soil, but most hid in houses during the day. Robert went through all the legends he knew and tried to discover which ones were true.
Then one day, he saw a dog. Unbelievably, the dog was not infected. He was hurt and scared, but, not infected. Slowly, lured the dog to him. Day by day, a little bit at a time. But, by the time he finally got the dog to let him touch him, the dog had become infected. Robert captured the dog and brought him inside. The dog hid under a table, sick and hurt. Robert tried to cure the dog, but, a week later the dog was dead. All the months of library books, studying the blood, dust and everything else under the microscope, nothing helped.
At this time Robert did not dive into the despair of drink, he decided to dive into work. He needed to understand the disease. If it was a virus, why the aversion to crosses and mirrors? Finally, he came to the conclusion that part of the disease was physical and part of it was psychological. The effect on the brain caused hallucinations. Legends and superstitions overlapped to cause reactions.
This part of the story begins with Robert still hunting for Ben Cortman. It’s become a relaxing game. Ben moves in hiding places often, and Robert checks everywhere. He has settled into a routine. Hunting during the day, smoking a pipe, since he ran out of cigarettes, relaxing. Then at night, he barricaded himself in his house. His appearance has changed. He stopped shaving and has a long beard. Robert has put on muscle, he weighs two hundred and thirty pounds. Hair thinning, but long and straggly.
As he is resting by his wife’s tomb, he notices a woman walking in the daylight. Another survivor? Robert calls to her, and she runs. He chases her, finally catching her. There is a struggle while she tries to get away. But, she stops when he hits her. Robert convinces her to come home with him. She tells him her name is Ruth. She and her husband had been hiding out. But, he was attacked and killed the day before. When they get to his house. Ruth is impressed with the tidy, well stocked and protected house.
Since he didn’t trust her, Robert locked her in the bedroom while she slept. She didn’t show many signs of vampirism, except for garlic making her ill. She told him that she hadn’t eaten in a while. That and the stress made her ill. So, he still wasn’t sure. When he asked if he could check her blood, she agreed but wants him to wait until the next morning. When she begins to question him, he tells her everything he has discovered about the virus. The crosses work on the Christians, but not on other religions. Robert saw one man jump from the lamp post because he thought he had turned into a bat. The reason why none of them thought to burn him out, is because they lost some of their reasoning power. Then he tells her that the reason stakes work, is because it leaves an open wound. The bacterium slows the blood down and feeds on fresh blood. When a vampire decomposes, the spores fly out to find a new host. When she asks him why he is immune, he explains that while he was stationed in Panama during the war, he was bitten by a vampire bat, and survived. It built an immunity.
While Robert is checking her blood under the microscope the next morning, Ruth knocks him over the head and runs. When he regains consciousness, he finds that she has gone, leaving a note. She tells him that she knows he has discovered she is infected. She tells him that he killed her husband since he was infected, too. The vampires that are still alive and cognizant, are establishing a new society. The group has developed a drug that feeds them blood but keeps the virus from growing. They know about him and sent her as a spy. She warns him to run. The people in her society will be after him, soon. She will tell them he is too well armed to attack.
Robert was angry and hurt, but more, it was what he saw when he looked under the microscope again at her blood. The bacteria is mutating.
“They came by night.” Men in dark attacked his house. Robert had decided not to run. This was his home, he didn’t want to leave it. So, he was there when the swat team hit his house. He saw them kill all the vampires waiting in his yard. But, it was when they killed Ben Cortman, that he lost his patience. He had thought to turn himself over to them, but, with their attack on Ben, he grabbed for his guns. They used an ax to open his door. When he tried to shoot them, he was shot in turn.
Robert wakes up in a hospital room. He has been shot in the chest and is dying. Soon, Ruth comes in and stands near his bed. She gives him a drink of water. She asks him why he didn’t run, when he explains that he couldn’t bring himself to leave his house, she tells him it is too late, now. She had planned on helping him escape, but since he was shot, she can’t do that now. They plan on executing him publicly. She tells him he is the last of his race. He had hoped there were more people. Ruth knows she can’t stop the execution, the only thing she can do is give him a drug to make his death easier.
After Ruth leaves, Robert hobbles over to the window, where he sees all the living vampires waiting for his execution. He realizes they want him dead because they are afraid of him, as he was afraid of them, once. He is their terror, their superstition. As he takes the drug, he says to himself, “I am legend”.
Robert Neville – the only man who is immune to the disease that turns the rest of the world into vampires. Before the plague hits, Robert lives a normal life. He has a wife, Virginia and a young daughter, Kathy. He carpools to work each day and comes home to a normal house. But, then the bombs fall. Although, the bombs aren’t in his town near Santa Monica, California, the dust storms from the bombs, go through his town, just as they have gone through every other town. With the dust storms, come mosquitoes and fleas. Soon, everyone around him is sick. Then they start to die. But, when the sick die, they don’t stay dead. They come back as vampire/zombies. Mindless creatures that feed on blood.
First, his daughter dies, but when they cremate her on a group pyre, Robert reacts violently. So, when his wife dies, he tries to bury her, against the law. But, she comes back and he has to stake her. Soon, Robert finds himself barricaded in his house. His method is ingenious. The house is self-sufficient, with a generator for power, water tank, and hot house. An over large freezer and pantry to keep his world going. During the day, he kills vampires while they are in a coma, and at night they torment him from his front yard.
Robert is very intelligent and spends months researching the virus, trying to understand the cause and maybe find a way to reverse it. His extensive research finds out how it started and he finds out what the effects are, he even finds out why he is the only person in the world immune. But, he never finds a cure. Throughout the story, Robert goes from depression to acceptance often. He suffers from bouts of alcoholism, and violent tempers.
Ben Cortman – Robert’s best friend and neighbor. When he becomes infected, he begins to torment Robert. Every night, he stands outside Robert’s house calling for him. Then by the day, he manages to find places to hide, for his daily coma, that Robert cannot find.
Ruth – seems, at first, to be another survivor, but, soon Robert finds out that she is infected. She is a member of the government of a new social class that has formed of infected people. They have developed a drug that will supply the body with blood and make them immune to the effects of the sun. As a spy, she gets Robert to take her back to his house, so she can find out what his secrets for survival are. But, she feels compassion and tries to save him. In the end, she helps him to kill himself.
Vampires – people that are infected with a bacteria that causes vampire effects. Their teeth grow, they develop an allergy to garlic, which has properties that cause them to recoil. The virus makes them vulnerable to sunlight. It kills them slowly. After the virus affects their brain, they begin to follow more of the accepted vampire lore. They have a fear of crosses, or what ever their personal religious representation is. After they die, they return as a zombie-like a creature, that is mindlessly searching for blood. The only way to kill them is to make the wound deep enough to stay open, then the air can attack their infected blood.
Richard Matheson Biography
Richard Matheson was born on February 20, 1926, in Allendale, New Jersey. After his parents, Norwegian immigrants, Bertolf and Fanny divorced, his mother took him to Brooklyn, New York, where he attended school. After graduating high school at Brooklyn Technical High School, he spent time in the United States Army during World War II. When he returned home, Richard earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, in 1949. After finishing his degree, Richard settled in California. There he became a screenwriter, specializing in fantasy, horror, and science fiction.
One of the television shows he wrote for was “Twilight Zone”. The iconic episode, “Nightmare at 2000 ft.” was written by Richard. The opening and closing statements recited by Rod Sterling were his work, too. He also wrote Duel, which was the first movie made by Steven Spielberg.
After Richard became a novelist, many of his books were turned into movies, including “I Am Legend”, which was made into a movie three times. “The Shrinking Man”, “Hell House”, “What Dreams May Come”, and “A Stir of Echoes” were all books written by Richard that later became movies. Another of his books, “Bid Time Return”, was made into the movie, “Somewhere in Turn”.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s Richard was a member of a society of writers called the Southern California Sorcerers. Other members included Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson, William F. Nolan and Jerry Sohl. In 1973 Richard won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for a teleplay he wrote for the “Night Stalker”. In 1984 was given the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, also the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Horror Writer’s Association. In 2010 Richard was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.
In 1952 Richard married Ruth Ann Woodson. Three of their four children, Richard Christian, and Chris and Ali followed in their father’s footsteps and became writers. In 2013, Richard Matheson died quietly in his home, surrounded by friends and family. At his death, he was eighty-seven years old.
Stephen King dedicated his book, “Cell”, to Richard Matheson. Listing him as his creative influence. George A. Romero said that his iconic movie, “Night of the Living Dead”, was influenced by Richard’s book, “I Am Legend”. After reading “A Dress of White Silk” written by Richard, Anne Rice was influenced in writing her vampire and fantasy novels.
“Richard Matheson’s ironic and iconic imagination created seminal science-fiction stories and gave me my first break when he wrote the short story and screenplay for Duel. His Twilight Zones were among my favorites, and he recently worked with us on “Real Steel”. For me, he is in the same category as Bradbury and Asimov” Steven Spielberg.
Richard Matheson was a well loved and well respected writer. A genius of science fiction and fantasy, his work has become some of the most influential of all the writers in his genres in history.