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I Am Legend ()

The great fantastical fiction writer Richard Matheson has happily gotten a second wind late in his career, mostly from the recent movie versions of his novels Stir of Echoes and What Dreams May Come, but an early generation of us recall him for his classics of scifi paranoia.  These included: novels like The Incredible Shrinking Man and Legend of Hell House; film scripts like those for the series of Poe films that Roger Corman made starring Vincent Price; Twilight Zone episodes (including the great "Nightmare at 20, 000 Feet"); the TV series Kolchak: The Nightstalker; the terrifying TV movie Duel.  This ouvure inspired everyone from horror writers Stephen King, Anne Rice and Dean Koontz to directors like Steven Spielberg (who directed Duel) and Tim Burton to Cris Carter who has acknowledged the debt of the X-Files to Kolchak and who even named a recurring character Richard Matheson.

Personally--and one imagines the same holds true for many of us children of the 70s--I became an unwitting admirer because of the cult status of The Omega Man, the rather bad film that was made from his fine novel, I am Legend.  Like many a cheesy movie, Omega Man ended up in the regular rotation of chillers that WWOR-TV in New York used to show and it became a favorite mostly by virtue of its familiarity after repeated viewings.  But I'd honestly not thought of it in quite some time.  Its drama after all--of a lone survivor of a devastating plague, holding off thousands of vampire zombies--owes much to the Cold War and our fear of takeover by Communists.  It's very much of a piece with the far superior Invasion of the Body Snatchers., an interesting curio, particularly revealing for the popularity of its anti-communist subtext, but otherwise forgettable.

But then, just recently, humorist James Lileks began a column with a reference to the scenario of the film and in what's little more than a throwaway line, breathed new life into the story:

    Whoís more miserable - the far right or the far left? The former is likely to wash its hands of the modern world, lament how things have
    gone to hell since the Brits stopped shoving civilization down the ululating maws of Wogland, and announce that youíre all welcome
    to your polyglot mishmash - Iíll be over here getting smashed on port and reading Patrick OíBrien novels. But at least they seem dedicated
    to enjoying life on their own terms; if theyíre cultural conservatives, they retire to their version of Hestonís apartment in ìThe Omega Man,î
    surrounded by the remnants of Western glory, keeping to themselves, and venting their spleen now and then by burping off a few rounds
    at the moaning zombies outside in the darkened park.

The key to a great allegory is that it not be totally dependent on a time and place and this one appears to have some legs.  Forget the Commie-zombies; it's about embattled conservatives!  Well, that was enough to get me to track down the book--a search for the film proving fruitless--and it does not disappoint.

Robert Neville is the last living man on earth.  He roams the streets of LA by day, driving stakes into the hearts of the slumbering undead and searching libraries for the secret of how to cure the disease that afflicts everyone else. At dusk, he hunkers down in his house, drinking, listening to classical music, and longing for his dead wife.  In a very real sense he is the last defender of civilization.  The nights outside belong to those like his former friend Ben Cortman who have been transformed into vampires.  As near as Neville has been able to determine, they are all the victims of a wind-born bacteria which he, for some reason, has a resistance to.  Over the course of the rather brief novel he befriends the last disease-free dog on Earth and then a woman who seems to still be human too.  Neville dreams of finding others ho have remained human or of curing those who are diseased, of re-establishing humankind and saving the world from the monsters who now dominate it, after dark anyway.  But in the end he realizes that it is he who has become the freak:

    Robert Neville looked out over the new people of the earth.  He knew he did not belong to them; he knew that , like the vampires, he was
    anathema and black terror to be destroyed.  And, abruptly, the concept came, amusing him even in his pain.

    [...] Full circle.  A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.

    I am legend.

From Albert Jay Nock's concept of the Remnant and his reference to himself as a "Superfluous Man" to Allan Bloom's assertion that we've witnessed "The Closing of the American Mind" to Robert Bork's felicitous image of an America that is "Slouching Toward Gomorrah", there's a consistent strain of thought in conservatism, one often lamented by neocons and the like, that holds that the masses have already become zombie-like and that the men of the Right are the last holdouts, the final defenders of Western Culture.  Since I pretty much believe that myself, Mr. Lileks' comparison struck me as especially apt and proves once again that a great allegorical tale often has many lives because it captures something true and timeless about us.  None of this turns Mr. Matheson's book into a great work--it's somewhat overwrought--but it does make it awfully fun to return to it from a fresh perspective.  Even Omega Man will be more fun to watch, particularly since star Charlton Heston is so closely identified now with conservative causes.


Grade: (B)


See also:

John Buchan (2 books reviewed)
Science Fiction & Fantasy
John Buchan Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: John Buchan
    -The John Buchan Story
    -The John Buchan Society
    -FILMOGRAPHY: John Buchan (IMDB)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Richard Hannay
    -PODCAST: Ursula Buchan on John Buchan: From The History of Literature Podcast with Jacke Wilson (History of Literature, June 5, 2024, LitHub)
    -PODCAST: Oh! What a Lovely Podcast (a podcast that focuses on World War I) discusses John Buchan's ever-popular thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), including burning questions such as why you should never let Richard Hannay drive. (Oh What a Lovely Podcast, 10/03/22)
    -PODCAST: Ursula Buchan on her grandfather, John Buchan (Sam Leith, The Spectator Books Podcast)
    -ENTRY: John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir of Elsfield (1875-1940) (George Grant, Canadian Christian Leaders)
    -ENTRY: John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir: British statesman and author (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -EXCERPT: Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan, by Ursula Buchan
    -WALKING TOUR: The John Buchan Way (Visit Scotland)
    -WIKIPEDIA: The Thirty-Nine Steps
    -PODCAST: On the trail of John Buchan's Thirty-Nine Steps : We examine the enduring legacy of John Buchan’s thriller, with Robert McCrum and Kate Macdonald (The Guardian Books Podcast)
    -ETEXT: The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (Project Gutenberg)
    -AUDIO BOOK: The 39 Steps by John Buchan (Richard Hannay #1) (YouTube)
    -EXCERPT: First Chaper: The Thirty-Nine Steps
    -AUDIO: The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan: John Buchan’s thrilling tale of derring-do, secrets and spies set in the shadows of war. Read by Kenny Blyth. Produced by Karen Holden. (BBC)
    -The 39 Steps | John Buchan (Food Reference List) (In Literature)
    -EXHIBIT: 'The thirty-nine steps' — one hundred years on (National Library of Scotland)
    -PODCAST: Episode 93: The 39 Steps by John Buchan (HOSTED BY JOHN J. MILLER, July 23, 2019, National Review: Great Books podcast)
-ESSAY: Imperial fiction: Richard Hannay (ALWYN TURNER, Lion & Unicorn)
    -ESSAY: Such, such were the goys: Xenophobic 1920s novels inspired my lifelong love of literature; they should not be cancelled (Jonathon Green, Aug/Sep 2021, The Critic)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Great Scot: Between Kipling and Fleming stands John Buchan, the father of the modern spy thriller (CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, MARCH 2004, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: Catching up with John Buchan (Roger Kimball, June 27, 2012, The Fortnightly Review)
    -ESSAY: “Realism coloured by poetry”: rereading John Buchan (Roger Kimball, September 2003, New Criterion)
    -BOOK LIST: The 100 best novels: No 42 - The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915): John Buchan's espionage thriller, with its sparse, contemporary prose, is hard to put down (Robert McCrum, 7 Jul 2014, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Colour copy: In May 1915, John Buchan was appointed by The Times as special war correspondent at the Second Battle of Ypres, from where he dispatched six eyewitness reports (Roger Clarke, TLS)
    -ESSAY: High-lowbrow: Hunting down John Buchan (Robert Messenger, TLS)
    -ESSAY: How The Thirty-Nine Steps invented the modern thriller (Christian House, 11 OCTOBER 2015, The Telegraph)
    -ESSAY: John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps: John Buchan's hero, Richard Hannay, was a patriotic precursor of James Bond whose appeal is undiminished nearly a century after he was created. Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, celebrates this most gentlemanly of spies. (Stella Rimington, 11 Jan 2011, The Telegraph)
    -ESSAY: Buchan, Broadstairs and the 39 Steps (Martin Charlton, 6/12/2019, The Isle of Thanet News)
    -ESSAY: From the Gorbals to The 39 Steps - can we learn to love John Buchan again? (Mark Smith, 11th March 2019, Herald Scotland)
    -ESSAY: Novel to Screen to Stage: Evolving, Step by Step (Edward Rothstein, Jan. 28th, 2008, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: The 39 Steps to writing a perfect thriller (by the grandson of the author who wrote the first ever modern spy novel) (TOBY BUCHAN, 15 January 2011, Daily Mail)
    -ESSAY: Hunted men in John Buchan’s London, 1890s to 1920s (Kate Macdonald, Literary London)
    -ESSAY: John Buchan’s clubland heroes: In The Thirty-Nine Steps and his other yarns – with their decent chaps in scrapes and men on the run – John Buchan invented the modern spy novel. (WILLIAM BOYD, New Statesman)
    -ESSAY: What can spy novelists learn from the enduring popularity of The Thirty-Nine Steps?: A hundred years on from the publication of The Thirty-Nine Steps, what is John Buchan's legacy and how have spy novels endured in an age of supranational politics? (Nick Young, 8/04/15, New Statesman)
    -ESSAY: Retracing The Thirty-Nine Steps in Buchan’s beloved Borders: Richard Hannay’s first adventure, now 100 years old, is a pastoral disguised as a thriller (William Cook, 10 October 2015, The Spectator)
    -ESSAY: The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan: The Importance of the Impossible (SEAN FITZPATRICK, 6/12/2014, Crisis)
    -ESSAY: John Buchan's Richard Hannay: Stranger than Fiction - the undercover spying mission of a British officer disguised as a Boer in German South-West Africa provided John Buchan with inspiration for his most famous character (Geoffrey Powell , 8 August 1987, History Today)
    -ESSAY: Imperial fiction: Richard Hannay (ALWYN TURNER, 6/16/2018, Lion & Unicorn)
    -ESSAY: Masculinities in the Richard Hannay ‘War Trilogy’ of John Buchan (Joseph A. Kestner, Edited by Kate Macdonald, Nathan Waddell, John Buchan and the Idea of Modernity)
    -ESSAY: Buchan's Richard Hannay (J. Randolph Cox, Volume 32, Number 4, 1989, English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Last Victorian: John Buchan and the Hannay Quartet (Brett F. Woods, April 19, 2020, California Literary Review)
    -ESSAY: Lost Gay Novel: John Buchan's Greenmantle (Anthony Slide, 11 Oct 2008, Harrington Gay Men's Literary Quarterly)
    -LECTURE: “The Only Task For A Man”: Men and Manhood In John Buchan’s Richard Hannay Novels (John Crompton, September 23, 2013, Reading 1900-1950)
    -ESSAY: My Grandfather and Mr Standfast (URSULA BUCHAN, Slightly Foxed)
    -ESSAY: John Buchan and the First World War: Fact into Fiction (Hew Strachan, July 2009, War in History)
    -ESSAY: A warning from the past that the BBC does not want us to hear (Charles Moore, 16 Jul 2005, The Telegraph)
    -ESSAY: John Buchan and the Birth of Modern Spy Fiction (Michael Mallory, Mystery Scene)
    -ARCHIVES: John Buchan (Upper Tweed)
    -ARCHIVES: buchan (London Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES: John Buchan (The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Best of John Buchan: Three Rip-Roaring Richard Hannay Thrillers: The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr Standfast (Philip Womack, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Complete Richard Hannay by John Buchan (John Ure, Slightly Foxed)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (Nicola Davis, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (Christina Hardyment, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (Kate Macdonald, The John Buchan Society)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (Robert Wilson, Sydney Morning Herald)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (100 BEST SCOTTISH BOOKS OF ALL TIME,
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (Brian Morton, Scottish Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (Whispering Stories)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (Happy Catholic)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (Pining for the West)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (James Inskster, Spybrary)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (Ms Oh Waily, 1001 BOOKS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (Intellectual Mediocrity)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (The Readers Room)
    -REVIEW: of The Three Hostages by John Buchan (Kate Macdonald, The John Buchan Society)
    -REVIEW: of The Three Hostages (Robert Weaver, Liberty University)
    -REVIEW: of Greenmantle by John Buchan (Kevin Sampson, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Greenmantle (Macleans)
    -REVIEW: of Greenmantle (Mary Reed, MysteryFile)
    -REVIEW: of Greenmantle (Victorian Explorer)
    -REVIEW: of Greenmantle (Lesley Mason, Book Bag)
    -REVIEW: of The Power-House by John Buchan (Kate Macdonald)
    -REVIEW: of The Island of Sheep by John Buchan (David R, Reading 1900-1950)
    -REVIEW: of Lord Minto: A Memoir by John Buchan (O. D. Skelton, The Canadian Historical Review)
    -REVIEW: of Pilgrim's Way by John (Lord Tweedamuir) Buchan (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Pilgrim's Way ( John W. Wheeler-Bennett, VQR)
    -REVIEW: of Augustus by John Buchan (Michael Ginsburg, The American Historical Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Runagates Club by John Buchan (Ada Coghen, TLS)
    -REVIEW: of Runagates Club (John Cleal, Crime Review)
    -REVIEW: of John Buchan: a Memoir by William Buchan (PN Furbank, LRB)
    -REVIEW: of John Buchan: Model Governor General by J. William Galbraith (James Buchan, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan by Ursula Buchan (Anthony Quinn, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (John Lloyd, TLS)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (Robert Messenger, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond the Thirty Nine Steps (Murray Scougill, Sunday Post)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (Christopher Tayler, LRB)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (Justin Marozzi, Financial Times)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (John Carey, Times uk)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (Allan Massie, Spectator USA)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (Taylor Downing, History Today)
    -REVIEW: of John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier BY ANDREW LOWNIE (Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier (James Buchan, LRB)
    -REVIEW: of John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier (Publishers Weekly)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Alfred Hitchcock (IMDB)
-WIKIPEDIA: Alfred Hitchcock
    -ENTRY: Alfred Hitchcock English-born American director (Michael Barson, Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -ENTRY: Hitchcock, Alfred (
    -FILMOGRAPHY: The 39 Steps (1935) (IMDB)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: John Buchan (IMDB)
    -WIKIPEDIA: The 39 Steps (1935 film)
    -Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: The 39 Steps (1935) (Brenton Film)
    -ENTRY: The 39 Steps film by Hitchcock [1935] (Lee Pfeiffer, Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: 39 Steps (Metacritic)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: 39 Steps (Rotten Tomatoes)
    -VIDEO: The 39 Steps (1935) (YouTube)
    -ESSAY: Hitchcock is still on top of film world (Roger Ebert August 13, 1999, Chicago Sun Times)
    -ESSAY: The Hitchcock Universe: Thiry-nine steps and then some (George Perry, Hitchycock TV)
    -ESSAY: Introduction to Hitchcock and THE 39 STEPS (Joel Gunz, October 24, 2018, Alfred Hitchcock Geek)
    -ESSAY: Beginner’s Guide to Alfred Hitchcock: The 39 Steps (1935) (Manish Mathur, Talk Film Society)
    -ESSAY: Mirth, Sexuality and Suspense: Alfred Hitchcock's Adaptation of "The Thirty-Nine Steps" (Stuart Y. McDougal, Literature/Film Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: Alfred Hitchcock and John Buchan: The Art of Creative Transformation (Tony Williams, May 2007, Senses of Cinema)
    -ESSAY: How to be a Hero: Space, Place and Masculinity in The 39 Steps (Hitchcock, UK, 1935) (Angela Devas, 20 Aug 2006, Journal of Gender Studies)
    -ESSAY: COUNTING DOWN THE GREATEST CRIME FILMS OF ALL-TIME: #66: The 39 Steps (1935) (OTTO PENZLER, 4/12/19, Crime Reads)
    -ESSAY: Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps”: A Coded Message? (K. V. Turley, October 4th, 2018, Imaginative Conservative)
    -WIKIPEDIA: The 39 Steps (2008 film)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: The 39 Steps (2008) (IMDB)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (1935) (ANDRE SENNWALD, September 14, 1935, NY Times)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Michael Sragow, The New Yorker))
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (The Telegraph, The 75 best British films ever made)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Mark Duguid, Screen Online)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (AMC Filmsite)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Marian Keene, Criterion)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Tony Paley, The Guardian)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Michael Wilmington, Criterion)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Kevin Maher, Times uk)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (HELEN BROWN NORDEN, AUGUST 1935, Vanity Fair)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Chuck Bowen, Slant)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Scott Tobias, AV Club)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (TIME, Sept. 23, 1935)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Thomas Dawson, BBC)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Andrew Collins, Radio Times)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Martin Chilton, The Telegraph)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Reel Film)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Brian Costello, Common Sense Media)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Matt Brunson, Creative Loafing)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Emanuel Levy)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (walter Chaw, Film Freak Central)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Michael J. Casey, Boulder Weekly)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps ()
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Polygon)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Richard Matheson (Tor Books)
    -INTERVIEW: Richard Matheson and William Stout collaborate on a children's fantasy (Lisa DuMond, Science Fiction Weekly)
    -CHAT TRANSCRIPT : Richard Matheson (, 6/20/02)
    -Richard Matheson (Wikipedia)
    -Matheson ( Bill Shepard)
    -Richard Matheson (Sci-Fi Station - Sci-Fi Masters Series)
    -Richard Matheson (Alpha Ralpha Boulevard)
    -Richard Matheson (CyberSpace Spinner)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Richard Matheson (
    -PROFILE: Richard Matheson: Father and Son (David Carroll, Tabula Rasa#5, 1995)
    -PROFILE: The House of Matheson: Richard Matheson's Masterful Portraits of Fantasy and Terror (Bill Krohn, March. '99, Written By)
    -ARCHIVES: "richard matheson" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (Lisa DuMond, SF Site)
    -REVIEW: of I am Legend (Alan David Price, Iinfinity plus)
    -REVIEW : of Richard Matheson's The Twilight Zone Scripts: Volume One edited by Stanley Wiater (Lisa DuMond, SF Site)
    -REVIEW : of Richard Matheson's The Twilight Zone Scripts, Volume II Edited by Stanley Waiter (John C. Snider, SciFi Dimensions)

    -Filmography: Richard Matheson (
    -ESSAY : The Fantasy Films of Richard Matheson (David Miller, Starburst)
    -INFO: The Omega Man (1971) (
    -BUY IT : The Omega Man (
    -REVIEW : of The Omega Man (James White, Cinefiles)
    -REVIEW : of The Omega Man (Doug Smith)
    -REVIEW : of The Omega Man (Doug Pratt's LaserDisc Review)
    -INFO: The Last Man on Earth (1964) (
    -REVIEW: of The Last Man on Earth (Jerry Renshaw, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of What Dreams May come (John Simon, National Review)
    -The Official Somewhere in Time Web Site

    -Richard Matheson (TV Tome)
    -Senator Richard Matheson (The X-Files)

    -ESSAY: Virus horror! : In a new era of movies like the Farrelly brothers' "Osmosis Jones," we die from bugs, not bombs. (Dan Dinello, August 09, 2001, Salon)