I Am Legend: An (Annotated) Appreciation

Richard Matheson is hailed by many authors as the one whose works first inspired them to write. I know that I am not unique when I say he is the one writer who inspired me to read.

I can still recall the summer afternoon when I sat down to read I Am Legend for the first time. My brother had introduced me to the book, which he had brought home from the library where he worked. It was the first hardcover edition published by Walker and Company in 1970, with Jack Gaughan's eerie cover art featuring rough sketches of a man surrounded by blue and red demonic creatures.

As I opened the book and read the first line, I had no idea what I was in for.
On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when the sunset came, and sometimes they were in the street before he could get back.
I was immediately enthralled. What followed, several hours of frenetic page turning, was a new experience to me. I had never before read a book from start to finish in a single sitting, and I could not imagine reading this book any other way. If you've read it, you'll probably understand why (and if you haven't &endash; stop right here and return only after you've finished it). The hooks with which Matheson ends certain chapters leave the reader with no option but to continue. To this day, the following lines still cause the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up in anticipation:
The watch had stopped.
"Rob...ert," she said.
In a week the dog was dead.
I am legend.
As I closed the book, following Neville's realization and acceptance of his fate, the last line still lingering &endash; I realized that I had experienced something amazing. I had been whisked away to a small house on Cimarron Street where I was one with Robert Neville &endash; behind his boarded up windows I experienced his fears, his triumphs and his losses. Richard Matheson showed me just how captivating a book could be.

I Am Legend was my most frequently borrowed book from the local library over the next several years. I became particularly attached to the other copy in they had. It was the Science Fiction Book Club edition with the colorful Tony Gleeson cover featuring Neville standing atop a clutching group of vampires; stake raised with the fiery pit burning brightly behind him.

As much as I appreciated the regular access to the book the library offered, for years I sought out a copy to call my own. After several years of searching, my first was the Bantam 1964 paperback, with the hyperbolic claim on the cover "THIS MAY BE THE MOST TERRIFYING SCIENCE-FICTION NOVEL YOU WILL EVER READ!!!!!!." I could hardly believe it when I retrieved it from a box of twenty-five cent paperbacks at a flea market in a Berkeley, California BART station.

Shortly thereafter, I acquired my first hardcover copy &endash; the much treasured SFBC edition; again at a flea market (this time at a community college in Fremont, California), and again, much to my amazement, for only a quarter. I'm particularly precise when I describe the details surrounding how I located these first copies to clarify that I still remember those exact moments of exhilaration, almost 20 years later.

In the ensuing years I managed to track down copies of each of the remaining US editions, including my treasured Gold Medal number 417, with the haunting cover of Neville standing at the precipice of the fiery pit by popular artist Stanley Meltzoff.

For some time, I bought every copy of the book that crossed my path. No one in my family or circle of friends went without reading it. I always had an extra copy to loan to the uninitiated, and I always encouraged folks to keep them or better yet pass them on to others, to further spread the word.
I eventually got a copy of the Walker hardcover (in fact the library discard of the original edition I had first read), and soon after that a book dealer who was aware of my obsession offered me the particularly rare David Bruce & Watson British hardcover (whose stark black cover designed by Bill Botten featured a white eyelash, red lip, and single white fang).

Other US editions followed, including the eye-catching if misleading Berkley Medallion tie-in to The Omega Man, and the third British paperback from Corgi featuring the lower half of a man, mallet in hand, standing over the staked body of a beautiful woman. It was not long before I had managed to track down a copy of every English language version of the book. Despite that, my obsession had not yet been satiated.

When Tor Books published I Am Legend with several of Matheson's short stories in 1995, I was so enamored with artist Jim Thiesen's cover depicting rows of vampires trailing off into the horizon that I immediately shot off a letter with an offer to purchase it. While I later discovered that Thiesen had never read the book, I still think his artwork manages to convey the scope of the book perhaps better than any other cover. Thiesen's artwork appears to have been controversial, as while it is still used on the current US and UK editions of the book, the image has been digitally manipulated, moving the skeletal head of one vampire onto the body of another (with the outstretched hand), and suspiciously blacking out the image of an undead baby.

Having completed my quest for all English language versions of the book, I had but one direction to pursue. Thanks to Mark Rathbun and Graeme Flanagan's indispensable 'illustrated bio-biography' Richard Matheson: He Is Legend, I was able to identify the first of several new targets. Their chapbook included a partial list of foreign language editions of I Am Legend, including:
Kyuketsuki, Japan
Ich, Der Letzte Mensch, Germany
Chikyu Saigo No Otoko, Japan
Soy Leyenda, Argentina
Ich Bin Legende, Germany
I had found myself a new challenge, albeit one I didn't quite know how I would tackle. Fortunately, the arrival of the internet changed things rather quickly. I launched this I Am Legend fan site to continue to spread the word, and soon other fans of the book from around the world were contacting me to share their passion and let me know about more editions I did not yet have.

I quickly learned that I had thus far seen only the tip of the iceberg. Dark Delicacies, a horror-themed bookstore in Burbank, California (where Matheson still makes the occasional personal appearance), began selling foreign editions from Matheson's personal library. This rare opportunity led to my acquisition of a number of copies I may not have otherwise encountered.

Despite that windfall, my search continues to this day. I have since added copies from France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Russia, Norway, and Turkey to my collection. I have built up a library of more than 50 different versions of the book from around the world. As much as I want to have them, I'm also very interested in sharing them, and to that end I'm quite pleased several are being used to illustrate this omnibus collection.

While my obsession with I Am Legend is admittedly extreme, I must reiterate that it is the story for which I am most grateful. The fact that the book remains in print to this day for new readers to discover brings me great pleasure. It also makes my self-appointed role as an evangelist much easier.
It is an honor to thank Richard Matheson on behalf of the generations of fans he has inspired; for the years of pleasure his words have given us all.

He is a master storyteller.

An inspiration.

A legend.
John David Scoleri
Santa Clara, CA
Summer, 2006


Unknown said...

Thanks a million for your terrific website!
I vividly recall the cloudy day in early spring of 1964 when I was thrilled to discover the Bantam Books edition of I Am Legend on the rack of the small grocery store behind my grammar school. I had never heard of it before, nor had any clue that a movie based on it had just been released. At the time was a Poe and Bradbury devotee.
On my way home I could not resist starting to read it, so had to find a place in a small park to sit down as I became further drawn into the narrative - which read so much like one of my own childhood fantasies: the last survivor of the inexplicable overnight disappearance of everyone else around (I still love that one!). But, as I was lost in Matheson-land, an older kid came along and just had to butt in, asking what I was reading. Reluctantly I hand the book over to him. He scans the covers, starts to read it, then will not let go. After a few minutes he simply hands me some money and dismisses me.
To this day I regret not fighting for my copy - even though I promptly bought another one.
But, then again, maybe the fact that such an unusual (for me) incident as that only helped to enhance my memory of being introduced to Richard Matheson and one of his many wonderful creations was more than worth the small humiliation.
As the years passed, I kept hoping for a true movie adaptation - though I am sort of fond of the rather dopey AIP, which popped up on NY TV early one morning around 50 years ago. Otherwise, I suppose that the only genuine version of this story will remain in its peculiar time and place, where it belongs - and a superb illustration of a universal fear/wish fulfillment.

Jessica Garber said...

It is funny, in 2022, one of the 22 things I wanted to do was write to authors of books I read this year. Well, the first book ironically enough was "I Am Legend." The author has been dead since 2013, but when I first got the book on Kindle, I didn't even think of that, I just wanted to see how the book version of the Will Smith flick would read. The tale did not disappoint my taste for the look into what the other post called a fear/wish fullfillment. Thank you for having this site so that although I cannot write the author, I can at least leave my comment out there in the universe.

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