Picture, if you will, a man hiding out in a military latrine in the middle of the night, reading a novel about a bloodsucking creature. The man’s name is Richard Matheson, he is in the midst of Army basic training during World War II, and he is reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Why did he do it? What kept him awake?

“I don’t know. I was pretty tired, I should have gone to sleep,” he would say many years later. “I enjoyed it at the time, never knowing I was going to write a book about vampires and certainly not that it would be derived from the idea I had when I first saw Bela Lugosi [in the film version].”

Without Richard Matheson, the most popular show on television—AMC’s The Walking Dead, which begins its seventh season Sunday night—would almost certainly not exist. Without him, the entire modern template for science fiction and horror might not exist.

It is very possible you have never heard of Richard Matheson, and yet you almost certainly know his work, because it’s all around us. And perhaps you might debate his overarching “importance”—he is not the kind of writer who will ever win a Nobel Prize—but you cannot debate his impact, because a single 160-page book he wrote in 1954, I Am Legend, is now recognized as one of the most important genre novels of the 21st century.

Without him, the most popular show on television—AMC’s The Walking Dead, which begins its seventh season Sunday night—would almost certainly not exist. Without him, the entire modern template for science fiction and horror might not exist.

In one short novel, Matheson established the basic rules for a story about an apocalypse caused by science, for a story about the lone survivor of said apocalypse, and for a story about otherworldly creatures subsuming the human race. Without him, there might be no trove of literature and humor about the zombie apocalypse. Without him, there might be no Stephen King or Anne Rice (both of whom have cited him as major influences on their work). And without him, even a show like Black Mirror—the Twilight Zone-inspired British dystopian anthology that dropped its third season on Netflix today—might be far less edgy, since Matheson happened to write some of the most influential Twilight Zone episodes, too.

The thing about the greatest science fiction and horror is that it transcends the time when it was written. Dracula is like that, but so is Matheson’s I Am Legend, which has been adapted for the screen multiple times, most recently in a film starring Will Smith. But please, forget for a moment about that film and its sanitized ending, and forget about the otherwise decent versions featuring Charlton Heston and Vincent Price before that. As is the case with most novels, Matheson’s book is far more layered and complex than any of the movies it inspired. Matheson’s book, in fact, is about more than just our fears of strange creatures coming to devour us in the night. It’s about our societal fears, and about changing definitions of manhood, and particularly about the terror and xenophobia plaguing a white male in a rapidly changing world.

“He’s just showing some honest fears I imagine he had about himself and the world at that time,” observes June Pulliam, an instructor of English, women’s and gender studies, and film and media studies at Louisiana State University. “One of the reasons his work is so important is because he was writing about the 21st-century brand of masculinity you see today—fears of big government, discontent with women, fear of them and their bodies.”

In other words, if you wanted to read one book that encapsulates this gruesome and horrifying moment in American political history, your best bet might be I Am Legend.

Matheson, the son of Norwegian immigrants, was born in 1926 in New Jersey. His father ran several speakeasies during Prohibition, and Matheson himself grew up poor and suspicious of outsiders and often used reading as an escape. He began writing stories for a local newspaper, and shortly after returning from the war and attending the University of Missouri, he published his first short story in a magazine for $25. He eventually moved to Los Angeles, married, had his first child, and published his first two novels—both mysteries—in 1953 while cutting out airline parts on an assembly line for Douglas Aircraft. He published I Am Legend a year later, earning a $3,000 advance; it wasn’t until the 1956 publication (and subsequent film adaptation) of his novel The Shrinking Man that Matheson and his family emerged from poverty.

But it is I Am Legend that has proved to be Matheson’s most enduring work, and it’s easy to see why. It is set in January, 1976, roughly 20 years in the future at the time Matheson was writing. The protagonist, Robert Neville, is sitting in his house in Los Angeles, the simple trappings of his surrounding juxtaposed with the dystopic world outside his front door, the “vampires” (most notably his neighbor, Ben Cortman) calling for him to come outside. That image, wrote Alison Flood in The Guardian, “is one of the most chilling, the most believable, in post-apocalyptic fiction.” Neville goes on to kill several vampires. He also mistreats a female named Ruth whom he suspects of being a “living infected,” which in Neville’s mind is the equivalent of being a vampire, even though, as Pulliam wrote in her book (co-authored with Anthony J. Fonseca) Richard Matheson’s Monsters, “the (living infected) are no threat to him… Their intellects remain intact so they do not seek blood to survive.”

Like all of Matheson’s work, I Am Legend sets the ordinary amid the extraordinary, but where it excels is in its final twist, which I won’t give away, but which proves, as Pulliam tells me, that “in the end, we find out Robert Neville is the real monster—his way of thinking is viewed as really backward.”

In the Will Smith version of I Am Legend, the Neville character becomes a Christ-like figure that saves the world by concocting a cure for this plague and winds up sacrificing himself to save humanity. It’s not a terrible movie, but it doesn’t carry the same weight as the book version, where the conclusion is almost exactly the opposite. Matheson’s Neville is the one who conflates all his enemies into a single entity; he is the one who believes himself the arbiter of ethical values in this new world, and he is the one, Pulliam writes, who is concerned as much about “maintaining a hierarchical order—where he as a white male is at the top—as [he] is about securing sustenance and protecting himself from the undead who gather outside his home nightly and bid him to come out so that he can become one of them.”

“The book’s ending condemns Robert,” Pulliam tells me, “for his wholesale judgment of everybody.”

“Mathison’s really the one who’s responsible for this more than George Romero. He established the post-apocalyptic saga that we see today.”
—June Pulliam, LSU

Maybe that sounds like an overly academic reading of a book that can also be enjoyed merely as a monster story, but if you page through I Am Legend with this idea in mind, you can see where academics like Pulliam are coming from. That interpretation also brings us back to today, to the moment we’re living through. There is a point when Neville, speaking to Ruth in condescending fashion, says, “You can’t abide by Robert’s Rules of Order in the jungle,” and it sounds uncannily like a political motto for the Trump campaign.

While Matheson’s vampires were more nuanced than The Walking Dead’s stumbling and brainless zombie hordes, director George Romero has said that I Am Legend was the primary influence upon his film Night of the Living Dead, which presaged modern zombie films like 28 Days Later, and later TWD. “He’s really the one who’s responsible for this more than Romero,” Pulliam says. “He established the post-apocalyptic saga that we see today.”

And The Walking Dead has often played with the same tropes that Matheson appeared to be wrestling with in I Am Legend. The first season of TWD features controversial storylines about race and gender—several of the male characters discuss whether women should even carry guns, and after one key character makes a racist remark, he winds up chained to a pipe on a rooftop and left to die.

“But by Season 2, racism has gone out the window,” Pulliam says. “And by Season 3, women start playing a stronger role.”

After I Am Legend, Matheson continued to toy with these same ideas, writing novels and screenplays and more than a dozen iconic Twilight Zone episodes, including perhaps my favorite episode of all-time, “The Invaders,” starring Agnes Moorehead as a woman dealing with a plague of seemingly tiny alien creatures (if you haven’t seen it before, I recommend you remedy that immediately).

But Matheson’s most famous Twilight Zone episode is probably “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” about a man, played by William Shatner, who had a nervous breakdown six months earlier and now insists he sees a gremlin hanging out on the wing of a plane. He is not crazy, but the situation is, illustrating what Matheson did so well in everything he wrote: He depicted ordinary worlds gone inexplicably mad. Some 60 years after the publication of his most resonant work, here we are, living through a moment like that once more—and I am Legend is as good an election night read as any.

 

Lead image derived from cover art for the first printing of I Am Legend in 1954.