Quote of the Moment

"What's Past Is Prologue." - William Shakespeare

Friday, August 27, 2010

Suspense in I Am Legend

SPOILER ALERT! If you have not read I Am Legend (which is nothing like the movie, in my opinion) there are spoilers in this essay.

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Richard Matheson builds suspense throughout I Am Legend with a slow release of information and a pattern of ups and downs. He drops clues along the way like pieces of bait--they tempted me toward the hook, encouraged me to continue reading. I loved it, and the pay off in the end was worth it.

Robert Neville talks about the monsters, but he doesn't name them as vampires until page 16. Matheson wants the reader to figure it out for themselves, to guess what it is Neville is up against. The first sentence is the first clue: "On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came . . ." (1). Then we see the cracked mirror he put up, the stakes he makes, and the garlic. "Garlic always worked" (2). I found myself quickly dragged into Neville's world, wondering when he would finally name the monsters he faced.

Matheson doesn't stop there with his slow dissemination of information, though. Another piece of bait is dangled when we find out the body of Neville's wife is sealed away in a coffin. I wanted to know what happened to her, what happened to the daughter he mentions. How exactly did the vampires come about and what tore his family apart? This curiosity and need to find the answers ramps up the suspense, and to keep that suspense going, Matheson deliberately feeds us information bit by bit. Our first major backstory chunk isn't seen until page 39, finally revealing that his wife caught the disease that turned people into vampires.

There was one place in the story where the holding back of information didn't quite work for me. The first flashback concerns his wife getting sick, and his daughter has yet to show any signs of the sickness. On page 57 we finally reach the second flashback, his wife dies. Reading a couple pages into this flashback, though, he talks of giving his daughter's body over to the fire to be burned, which is why he refuses to do the same with his wife. I had to re-read the passage about his daughter several times because the point the information is revealed detracts from the suspense he built up. Instead, I was confused. Matheson jumps around in the timeline too much in this instance, and it interrupts the nice flow of information he developed. I was stopped in my tracks while reading because of the confusion brought about by this slip.

Moving on from how Matheson utilizes the release of information, there is another strong pattern he uses to keep the suspense going. I Am Legend is a rollercoaster of ups and downs, of hope and having that hope crushed. It begins with Neville's search for the answers about how people were turned into vampires. He wants to find a scientific reason, instead of a superstitious one. Right when he thinks he has the answer, he's stripped of it, realizing that it doesn't explain the fear of crosses and their own reflection. Then he has the hope of the dog. This dog is the first living thing he's come across that doesn't seem sick. A companion for Neville's loneliness. Again, his hope shatters when the dog grows sick and dies. Finally, the pinnacle of all hopes, a woman walking in the daylight--someone else that survived. Or so he thinks. These ups and downs, the playing Matheson does with Neville's emotions, makes for an engaging and suspenseful story.

Every story needs suspense, and I Am Legend is infused with it. If you've seen the movie, forget about that drivel and read the book--it's a more compelling and believable story.

Works Cited

Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 1995.


  1. "Robert Neville talks about the monsters, but he doesn't name them as vampires until page 16." -- I personally loved this, because I like using my imagination to try to picture things in my head using the imagery before getting a blunt indication of what it is.

  2. Nicely put. I thought this story was taut and wonderful. To tell the truth, I hated vampires (thanks in no small part to Anne Rice), but this book knocked me off my feet.

  3. Leadie Jo Flowers9/9/10, 5:56 AM

    I just wanted to comment that I too had some confusion and rereading about his wife and daughter. While it wasn't explicitly clear I didn't get the feeling he was taking his daughter to the fires. I thought he was going to bury here and they saw him and took the child. The time frame is unclear but since it is a memory I belief it was of little relevance. Glad you brought this up. Thought I was the only one who noticed this.

  4. This book was an interesting take on the old vampire legend. It even may look at the human condition in how we respond to horrible events and become monstrous ourselves.


  5. It was a little confusing for me, too, Leadie. It was not in the same cadence as the rest of the chapter. I had to stop and re-read it before moving on. I love Apocalytic stories and this is based on the grand-daddy of them all, The Omega Man.