Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954) is an influential SF vampire/zombie novel that spawned three film adaptations (I’ve watched the first two) and inspired directors such as George A. Romero and Danny Boyle, game designers such as Tim Cain (Fallout), and countless authors. The subject of the novel–man attempts to survive an onslaught of vampires, caused by bacterial infection, that act like smart(er) zombies in a post-apocalyptic wasteland–normally isn’t my cup of tea. I’m the first to admit that I picked up the novel entirely due to its historical importance. And I’m somewhat glad I did! While the physical onslaught of vampiric zombies didn’t interest me, the main thrust of the narrative concerns the mechanisms of grief and sexual frustration in the burning wreckage of one-time domestic bliss.
The Rituals of Solace and the Path out of the Haze (*spoilers*)
Richard Neville, a tattooed war veteran mysteriously immune to the vampiric affliction sweeping America, spends his days lathing stakes, traveling short distances from his home killing vampires, hanging garlic, listening to Beethoven, and drinking. The female vampires attempt to cajole him from his house with lewd acts: “there was no union among them. Their need was their only motivation” (12). The facts about the vampires seem straight from gothic legends of the past: “their staying inside by day, their avoidance of garlic, their death by stake, their reputed fear of crosses, their supposed dread of mirrors” (16). Intermixed with Neville’s daily ritual are intense moments of disillusion and sadness as he remembers the domestic happiness before the disease within the same walls he still occupies. He deeply loved his wife Virginia and his young baby Kathy. When he dreams about Virginia his “fingers gripped the sheet like frenzied talons” (11). He remembers their final conversations. Her death. His grief. And her return… And when the despair builds he slips back into the routine again: “reading-drinking-soundproof-the-house” (21).
Two ideas jolt him from his alcoholic malaise: 1) the faint possibility that “others like him existed somewhere” (18). 2) a growing desire to uncover the scientific rationale behind the vampires, and perhaps, an ability to more effectively kill them. Neville, little educated in science, throws himself into his studies (i.e. an excuse for Matheson to divulge extensive mind-numbing passages of rudimentary bacterial theories that never make the “reality” of vampires any less scientifically inane). He uncovers the reason behind how the disease is spread, why vampires need human blood, and how they are able to animate a dead body.
The narrative gains intense emotional heft, if it didn’t have it already, when Neville comes across the emaciated shape of a dog in the middle of the day (vampiric dogs bark at night): “Why pretend? He thought. I’m more excited than I’ve been in a year” (82). He spends days and days domesticating the beast–which has developed its own ways to survive the predations of the vampires at night. And at its death, he is again crazed by grief. And then a woman appears on one of his voyages…
The Male Sex Drive in the Wasteland
I enjoyed I Am Legend as an allegory of nuclear terror. Matheson makes clear that the vampiric disease–spread by bacteria in dust clouds (i.e. paralleling fallout)—is a metaphorical (and mythological) manifestation of humanity’s fears of the end present in the 1950s. Virginia asks Richard whether the bombings caused the disease and Richard answers, “and they say we won the war” (43). Matheson implies a limited nuclear conflict in the near future that reflects growing knowledge of fallout after Americans learned about the “Ivy Mike” Hydrogen bomb tests in 1953 . The vampiric disease represents America’s existential dread present in a rapidly changing post-WWII world and how the suburban American way of life is under threat. Neville’s discoveries of the nature of vampirism after the apocalypse suggests we too might understand the true impact of nuclear weapons on the wrong bank of the Rubicon.
Lima de Freitas’ cover for the 1958 Portuguese edition (below), and to a lesser degree John Richards’ cover with its staked nude female for the 1956 edition (above), reflect an omnipresent thread of sexual chaos amidst the incomprehensible horror of vampiric holocaust that runs through the novel . Lima de Freitas’ figure of Richard Neville does not have his eyes on the burnt buildings of the surrounding city but on the suggestively splayed nude female body of a vampire. At night that body with rouse itself and mill around Neville’s house attempting to cajole him out with macabre parroting of female sexuality: “The women, lustful, bloodthirsty, naked women flaunting their hot bodies at him. No, not hot” (21). Neville, alone, is possessed by perverse sexual desires. In one instance he ponders why he always experiments on female vampire bodies he collects while they sleep during the day: “Why do you always experiment on women? […] What about the man in the living room, though For God’s sake! He flared back. I’m not going to rape the woman!” (48). But he can’t help but notice her “torn black dress” with “too much [..] visible as she breathed” (48). In another instance, consumed by the heat of his loins Neville finds himself removing the bars of his door in an effort to run out into the night–“Coming, girls, I’m coming. Wet your lips now” (21).
Elaine Tyler May analyzes the juxtaposition of sex symbols with nuclear devastation in American popular culture–think bikini bathing suit, an attractive woman as “bombshell” or “Bill Haley and His Comets singing about sexual fantasies of a young man dreaming of being the sole male survivor of an H-bomb explosion” . The home provided a form of “sexual containment”  that would be released in terrifying forms in the case of apocalypse. If the home falls, society falls. And Richard Neville attempts to preserve his home in I Am Legend and avoid the endless temptation of flesh in the burnt wreckage of suburbia that surrounds him. And when he gives in to his sexual desires and lets a new woman into his house in a confused attempt to recreate what he had lost, the end has already been spelled out.
 For more on what Americans knew about nuclear testing–and saw on TV–and when they knew it, check out Robert A. Jacobs’ concise and fascinating The Dragon’s Tale: Americans Face the Atomic Age (2010).
 As I read I Am Legend as an allegory of nuclear fears, I used Chapter 4 “Explosive Issues, Sex, Women, and the Bomb” of Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (1988, revised edition 2017). I am riffing of some of her ideas.
 May, 107.
 May, 108.
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