Step aside, all post-apocalyptic last-man-on-earth sci fi scenarios. Richard Matheson’s 1954 novella, I Am Legend, did it first and best. A simply plotted but viscerally effective work, it focuses on Robert Neville’s efforts to stay alive, kill vampires, research the vampirism plague and retain his humanity in the face of crushing loneliness. Matheson writes with a gritty compassion about Robert’s messy desperate days, his horrific flashbacks about his wife’s death, vampiric resurrection and death again at his hands.
The best parts occur when Robert thinks he’s found other plague survivors: a dog, then a woman. Despite his best, most patient, grovelingly desperate advances, the dog dies after only providing a moment of tender respite to Robert. At this point in the novella, the reader feels about as broken-hearted as Robert; while Robert still stubbornly forges ahead in his habits of survival, the more emotionally astute reader begins to suspect that Robert’s world has no hope for humankind. The vampires are taking over. By the end of the story, Robert has the hardest, most chilling realization of all. The vampires rule the world, and they regard him as a murderous relic, a frightening aberration in their new society. He is the monster, not them. I strongly recommend this book.