So-Called “Greats”: I Am Legend

A “Great” of Speculative Fiction Threatened by Real-World Events

Richard Matheson is perhaps one of the most influential modern speculative fiction authors. He brought us some of the most memorable books and film/TV scripts of the 20th century, from The Shrinking Man (1956) and Hell House (1971) to ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ (The Twilight Zone) and ‘The Enemy Within’ (Star Trek: TOS).

Yet, of all of his works, his 1954 novella, I Am Legend remains perhaps his best. It’s a book that not only holds up well to this day, but also one that’s helped inspire new sub-genres of both sci-fi and horror. However, have real-world events toppled its status as a “great” of speculative fiction? Could it still be considered a “great”, despite this and its age?

Front cover of one of the many editions of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend

An Inspiring Read with A Wide-Reaching Influence

In contrast to many of the so-called “greats”, I Am Legend is a shorter read. Its novella style makes it a far quicker read than most of the “greats”, while still containing a huge world.

Even years after I first read it, the novella remains one of my all-time favourite reads. From the way Robert Neville tried to survive to its shocking twist ending, it’s a fantastic read from start to finish. Reading this book also made me fall in love with Matheson’s other works and his writing style.

What brings the novella into “great” status is the influence on culture it has brought. The vampires in this book aren’t the traditional ones as seen in Dracula or Varney the Vampire. They are vampire hybrids, which resemble more modern zombies than traditional vampire. In fact, the novella and its first film adaptation of the novella, The Last Man on Earth (1964), was an inspiration for a young George A. Romero, director of Night of the Living Dead (1968).

I Am Legend was influential on the formation of the modern zombie genre, especially on a young George A. Romero. His original script for his 1968 film Night of the Living Dead (image from the film above) was actually a rewriting of The Last Man on Earth (1964), the first of three film adaptations of I Am Legend

It’s through this that the novella essentially inspired the zombie genre. It can be considered as the father of the zombie genre, which saw immense popularity in decades since. It’s also been a noted inspiration for other well-known horror works, like Stephen King’s 1975 book Salem’s Lot and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002).  

Real-World Situations Threatening Its Status

Despite its wide-reaching influence, there’s something about I Am Legend which challenges its status as a “great”. The world in the novella is one ravaged by a pandemic caused by an unknown disease.

Unless one has been living under a rock on Mars for the last two and bit years, a little thing known as COVID-19 has spread all across the planet. With it, as I’ve taken note on some book blogs, many people are no longer wanting to read books that contain pandemics. Even books published many years ago, the idea of reading these sorts of books is not on many people’s radars.

It’s this real-world situation that is, in my opinion, threatens I Am Legend’s status as a “great” of speculative fiction. This factor, along with its now outdated vampire idea, makes it less of a “great” and just another classic speculative fiction story. 

Is It A “Great”?

Pre-COVID-19, I Am Legend was, in my opinion, a “great” of the speculative fiction genre. Personally, it’s still one of my favourite novellas and a “great” in my eyes. However, real-world events threaten to topple its status as a “great” of the genre. Still, if you’re interested in an engaging story with a twist ending, then I cannot recommend this classic any higher.

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