Damnit Jim, I am Legend, Not a Doctor! A review of I am Legend by Richard Matheson

Let me begin this review by saying I love Richard Matheson. I enjoy his stories and writing style. I have never read I am Legend however because, if I am being honest (and it’s shameful to admit as a horror writer), I tend to avoid zombie and vampire stories. Even the most unique twist on the old tropes, seems cliché to me. That being said, I tried to come to this story with fresh eyes and view it for what it was when it was written; the inspiration for many forthcoming “world ending event leaving the human race a raving pack of blood/flesh/brain hungry monsters” stories. In its time, it was new, different, and it had something to say.

The ultimate problem, however, for this novella is the vast differences in what the story should be, what Matheson tried to make it be and what it ultimately is. I am Legend should be a social experiment on the lonely life of the last man on Earth, somehow immune to the ravages of a disease that took his wife and daughter and left his neighbor a feral, blood-thirsty maniac. That’s all it needs to be. That situation in and of itself is a horror. Seeing the history of the disease in flashbacks, the monotony of daily life, and how a human can become numb to even the most unimaginable terror is enough.

Matheson wanted to take it a step further. He wanted to tell a tale of the vampire from a modern science point of view. Let’s take the superstitious beliefs about the creature and explain it all away with science. Ok, let’s do that. But how? I mean we’re talking medieval ideas that we are expected to buy if only a writer feeds it to us on a clear glass slide under 400X magnification. For me, it was this well intended but poorly understood science that kept pulling me out of the story, that and the protagonist, Robert Neville’s labile intellect which swung from Vampires are real…why has it taken me five months to realize they can’t go out in the sunlight to the bacteria, in the presence of air, switches from an anaerobic symbiote to an aerobic parasite that overwhelms the body in mere seconds.

Therein lies my problem with this book. Robert Neville “had no anatomical knowledge” but by the end of the story, had identified the bacillus, learned its extremely complicated physiology and was making and testing vaccines. I’ve been in medicine for 16 years, if you asked me to create a vaccine, I would fear for the human race. The idea that a lay person, even with all the time in the world, managed to do this in three years just did not ring true. There is a piece of dialog between Neville and Ruth where he explains how his antibiotics fail and then goes on to explain why a vaccine doesn’t work. For a physician, this is frustrating. Vaccines and antibiotics are different and work differently. Vaccines cause an immune response, but antibiotics work on the bacteria itself in a variety of ways. Matheson would have been better served spending the time developing Neville’s psyche instead of researching just enough to spell the medical terminology correctly.

Beyond Neville’s discovery of a bacillus, that if so easy to a layperson, makes one wonder why in the early stages, scientists couldn’t find it just as easily, was the insistent need to explain away every possible vampire superstition with his “bacterial discovery”. The idea that a bacteria in the blood stream could die when the external body is exposed to sun or turns aerobic when the body is pierced by a stake is simply preposterous. Even if you don’t understand microbiology, I would think this would still make you say “hmm”. Garlic, concentrated and injected causes nothing but if smelled can cause eventual anaphylaxis? That’s not how this works, that’s not how any of this works.

And I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the “body glue” that the bacteria makes. This was given as the explanation as to why bullets don’t work. The bacteria fills the hole (but then is it not exposed to the same air the stake exposed it to?) and in some, there is so much body glue, we are told that shooting the vampire is like “throwing pebbles into tar”. Wow, ok, so bullets cannot even penetrate the glue? Good thing a knife or razor can cut deep enough to expose the bacteria to air when Neville does away with them. These inconsistencies made me want to hurl my whiskey glass, bang my fists on the bar, or just drink straight from the bottle itself.

The explanation for vampire behavior such as avoiding mirrors, crucifixes, and was the “hysterical blindness” that Neville read about in a psychology text. The shock of the plague, dying, coming back to life “could undo what mind was left” and even those who hadn’t yet died, had only “vampirism” to hold onto. “He was certain that all the living who came to his house at night were insane, thinking themselves true vampires although actually they were only demented sufferers. And that would explain the fact that they’d never taken the obvious step of burning his house. They simply could not think that logically.” But somehow, they could remember what they had learned about vampires when they were healthy, normal human beings. But other than that one thing, they were completely insane. Ok, well other than that and Ben Cortman’s memory of Neville’s name….and there was the logical thinking Neville attributes to Ben: “Neville felt certain that Cortman knew he was singled out for capture” and to that effect “He [Cortman] changed his hiding place constantly.” This does not strike me as insanity. But I’m no Vampirologist like Robert Neville.

So what is I am Legend? It’s a character study on both man and humanity. It’s an Aesop’s Fable of survival in the face of the unspeakable mental anguish. The epiphany at the end speaks in quiet beauty. It is an artful piece ruined by scientific mistakes and inconsistencies that roar thereby flattening the story and its protagonist into something the reader just can’t care enough about to hear the moral.

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4 thoughts on “Damnit Jim, I am Legend, Not a Doctor! A review of I am Legend by Richard Matheson

  1. Yes, I knew his “science” was shaggy, but I had no idea it was that bad! You’re right, Matheson should have stuck to what he was good at — creating good horror, back when nobody “legitimate” cared about good horror.

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  2. But, he had beakers! And… and… microscopes!

    I’m glad I don’t work in medicine, because I enjoyed it despite its poor science. The part I had to stretch myself to buy the most was the hysterical blindness (it’s as if he gave up on looking for a good reason and made due with a plausible one).

    I get your feelings about it though. I’m the same way when I read about military or see it on TV. They just get it wrong way more often than they get it correct, and it rips me out of the story. I imagine that’s the same for you in medicine.

    I enjoyed how you broke down what it is, and what it wanted to be, and now that I’ve read your breakdown of the science, I agree with you. It should have just stayed a story about being the last human on earth fighting to survive against the new dominant species.

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  3. I enjoyed the science in this piece but I’m not in the medical field. To me, it felt more like the cheesy 1950’s take on horror/sci-fi explanations. “Twilight Zone” and classic Universal “Frankenstein” type science where the audience believes for the sake of being entertained over realism. Matheson actually took more time and effort to explain his world than many others at the time. It would have been far easier to just blame the state of the world on pure supernatural vampirism. Instead, he made an attempt to twist it into a real disease. Yes, there was many holes in the actual science, but then again it was the 50’s and audiences at the time probably took little if any note on the actual realism of the bacteria. We see much better versions of the “virus turns man into monster” in more modern times, so I at least give a nod to Matheson for helping to blaze the trail for that variety of horror. Still, as a doctor I’m sure this whole aspect of the book was frustrating just as much as the sexism irritated the hell out of me.

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  4. lisettegallows says:

    I also agree that the bullet/body glue thing was stupid. I wonder how much more feasible the science of this book was in the 1950s when it was first written? Probably not much, but perhaps readers were more lenient then.
    The swing in his intellect I could forgive due to the sheer amount of time he was able to dedicate to reading and his academic upbringing. While Neville was not a scientist his father fought to instill those traits in him. While Neville really trusts that analytical side of himself, I was able to forgive that.
    I think the most interesting reading on his intellectual change and the obvious logical flaws with his science is the idea that Neville is full of crap. I love the idea that he never understood what was going on; he just made stuff up to try to explain and comfort himself.

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