Have you ever come across something that you’ve never seen before, but somehow are intimately familiar with? That is the feeling that was borne in me the moment I began to read the book. Many of the stories and ideas in the book have been scavenged and utilized by Hollywood many years over, removing some of the freshness of the book. That is why it was so surprising that the main novel would still pack such a strong punch after all these years. The book itself is an anthology of short stories, but the center piece, the piece de resistance, is the eponymously named story. I started reading this story, but for whatever reason, I stopped during the first quarter and began reading the other novels in the collection.
I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out what crappy hollywood movie is based on some of the stories, but they really are just loose, ephemeral nuggets of ideas. After I finished reading the short stories, I could scarcely believe that they’d be the central idea of a novel, while some of the un-dramatized films are so short as the bear reading twice, if only to make sure that you caught the story at all.
I Am Legend makes up for all of that because it has sufficient length and imagination to rise above the rest of the stories. Erstwhile the most translated of all of the stories, I Am Legend is the basis of The Omega Man starring Charleton Heston, a new adaptation coming out with Will Smith, and a few other films of minor note. But what all of these films miss is the essential idea of the title. The main character is the last of the human race in the wake of a horrible pestilence that ravages the each. Higher order mammalian creatures are turned into walking virus carriers with many of the characteristics of vampires. Legends of old come to life again to walk to earth. The protagonist stands unafraid, not from courage, but from an unshakable will to live that not even the unbearable loneliness of his existence can extinguish. In his mundane struggle, as he spends each day fortifying his home, you really get a feel for his situation. Not a hero, but a man who has endured in the face of an impossible situation. His bleak days are punctuated by the numbing assault of the evening which brings the vampires. They know that all that it takes is a few mistakes on his part to succumb to them. They prowl outside his home, alternately taunting and tempting him outside.
This situation lasts just long enough in the story to make you begin to feel the sense of hopelessness. To offset this, we are given privy to his thoughts as he goes over the past and contemplates the future. What hope does he have except to find a "cure", or perhaps a way of controlling them. In actuality, we begin to understand that he seeks not to destroy the vampires, but to save them. To him, it is a worse fate to eternally be alone than to die. He speaks not of destroying the vampires with glee, but with melancholy and weariness. Each vampire he destroys he sees as a failure on his part to find a cure.
The end comes not in the form of one of the legion of vampires that awaits outside his house, or even in the form of his nemesis, a former neighbor who somehow still remembers him, but in the form of companionship. Still a vampire, this woman is closer to him than she is to the rabid vampires. In her, his hope is dashed to find redemption. They have found a way to cope with the cause of the vampirism, but not a way to cure it. He finally realizes that there will likely never be a cure, because this is "good" enough, and this knowledge makes him feel truly alone. She begs him to leave, since the number of this new race grows, and she knows they cannot tolerate him. The closeness between them only magnifies their differences so that they become insurmountable. He represents something so close to what they are, but that they cannot have it becomes intolerable. In the end, he is destroyed by them, a flip flopping of what we know to be legends. The vampire to use is something very close to us, but twisted and filled with dark promises that we long for: eternal life, power, mystery. In the same way, the protagonist represents the same, and in his destruction is immortalized as only legends can be. Something greater than us, but like us as well. Great novel, and highly recommended.