“On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.
If he had been more analytical, he might have calculated the approximate time of their arrival; but he still used the lifetime habit of judging nightfall by the sky, and on cloudy days that method didn’t work. That was why he chose to stay near the house on those days.”
The opening lines from Richard Matheson’s classic novel I Am Legend, released on this date in 1954.
There are stories you encounter at a certain age – movies, TV shows, and most definitely books – that stay with you. As my good friend Kevin has described this phenomenon, this period of your life is something of your own personal “golden age” or “sweet spot,” usually your early teens or even before, where things encountered and enjoyed stick with you from that point forward. The love you have for this “thing” might be a fleeting sensation you revisit on occasion yet remember fondly each time that happens, or it might be something that remains with you, easily recalled with little or no provocation and never failing to bring a smile to your face.
For me, I Am Legend fits squarely in that latter category.
I first read the novel in 1979 at the age of 12 after stumbling across it at a local library. I was so enthralled with the story that I scoured bookstores for months until I found a copy to call my own. I haven’t been without at least one copy since.
In the decades since its original publication, the novel continues to provide inspiration. Pretty much the modern “zombie” subgenre of horror fiction – beginning with George A. Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead and spinning out from there – owes something to I Am Legend. As of this writing, Matheson’s book has itself been (officially) adapted for the screen three times: 1964’s The Last Man On Earth starring Vincent Price, The Omega Man from 1971 with Charlton Heston, and Will Smith’s 2007 film I Am Legend. This last one is currently being eyed for a sequel (or is it a prequel, or both?), and there was a time when I would’ve considered a follow-up to a film from more than just a few years after its predecessor an odd idea. Movies like Blade Runner 2049 and especially Top Gun: Maverick pretty much slapped that notion out of my head. Elsewhere, I long ago gave up trying to keep pace with the uncounted homages and flat out rip-offs of the original tale.
As for the book itself, I’ve turned hunting earlier editions of it into an idle passtime. In the early 1990s, Eclipse Comics published a 4-issue adaptation of the novel. I was lucky enough to find those at the time, and I enjoyed the graphic novel’s approach to slyly updating the story for the modern reader while remaining true to the original narrative. Years after Eclipse went under, IDW Publishing in 2003 produced a lavish hardcover edition of the adaptation. I missed it the first time around and after casually spending years hunting for it I finally landed a copy last year.
None of that compares to Matheson’s original novel, which 40+ years after I first read it remains one of my all-time favorite stories. I lost count ages ago how often I might pull it from the shelf, if not to reread it outright (it’s a short book) then simply to revisit favorite scenes and passages. When the 2007 film came along, a new audiobook edition of the novel was released, allowing me to enjoy the book in a whole new way.
I can quote passages from memory. Whenever I find myself driving around on an overcast day, I almost always consider the novel’s opening lines quoted above. I can’t drive past “Cimmaron Street” in my neighborhood without recalling that’s the street on which Robert Neville lived in the novel. Indeed, it was also the street on which Matheson lived while writing the book.
As I’m sure is the case with many other writers, the story itself along with Matheson’s superb crafting of such a memorable tale has influenced my own writing here and there. It’s just one of those titles that sticks with you, and I’m absolutely certain I’ve never assembled any sort of “Favorite Books” list that didn’t include it. For me, it’s most definitely one of “those books.”
When my oldest kid started taking an interest in reading supernatural horror and vampire stories in particular, I introduced them to Matheson and I Am Legend. They devoured the book in one sitting and immediately asked to read more by “this guy.”
Happy 68th Anniversary, I Am Legend.