“The world’s gone mad, he thought. The dead walk about and I think nothing of it.
The return of corpses has become trivial in import. How quickly one accepts the incredible if only one sees it.”
A deadly pandemic has laid civilisation low. Robert Neville is the last man left alive on earth, but he is not alone. By day, he does what he can to survive in Los Angeles and hunts the monsters roaming the world. By night, he barricades himself inside and prepares to fend off the creatures that were once his neighbours, holding them at bay by garlic and holy symbols while he works on a cure the disease that took his family from him.
I Am Legend is a vampire novel that isn’t really about vampires. Instead, it’s about survival in a world gone mad. The monsters themselves are almost laughably pathetic and easily vanquished in daylight, and their vulnerabilities limit what harm they can bring to Robert beyond mild taunting. It’s implied that Robert could hold the creatures off indefinitely, but the real danger is what is going on in his mind. Robert is unravelling, slowly, clinging desperately to any fragment of hope. He researches a possible cure for vampirism because it gives him something to do. He obsesses over befriending a dog, the first living creature he has seen in years. He is so ecstatic to meet another living human being that he doesn’t stop to think that it’s just a little bit strange. By the novel’s climax, it becomes clear that it’s Robert who is the tormented monster that can’t function in this brave new world, not the vampires who have begun to rebuild society.
Six decades after it’s initial publication, I Am Legend still reads like a fresh take on vampires. It deconstructs a lot of vampiric folklore, tries to explain it rationally instead of giving it a supernatural impetus. By rooting the cause of the vampirism biological warfare and mutation, Matheson presents vampirism as a disease rooted in science instead of a mystical curse. Most of the folklore concerning vampires— in particular, their vulnerability to garlic or mirrors— is explained as a psychosomatic product of cultural osmosis.
I Am Legend turns post-apocalyptic horror by asking who’s the real monster: the people who’ve adapted to change or the crazy survivalist trying to recreate the old world? It did a lot to reclaim vampires from the crypts of gothic churches and directly inspired the zombie apocalypse genre by presenting the undead as a mass wave of infected corpses in the wake of society’s collapse. It’s an impeccably written and vital book for anyone who wants to understand the psychology of horror, and how to subvert genre conventions.
“Ignorance was the enemy. Lies and superstition, misinformation, disinformation. Sometimes, no information at all. Ignorance killed billions of people. Ignorance caused the Zombie War. Imagine if we had known then what we know now. Imagine if the undead virus had been as understood as, say, tuberculosis was. Imagine if the world’s citizens, or at least those charged with protecting those citizens, had known exactly what they were facing. Ignorance was the real enemy, and cold, hard facts were the weapons.”
Funnily enough, I’ve never been that crazy about zombies.
I love ghost stories because there’s an undercurrent of hope to them, a belief in a world after this one that I find comforting as well as disturbing. And I’m okay with vampires and werewolves, especially now that we’re past their glut in speculative fiction— they scared me when I was young, so I can’t help but think of them as a bit childish. But I’ve never really grokked zombies. Maybe it’s because they’re so often used poorly, as set decoration or comic relief or shock troops of the apocalypse. Or maybe its because when they’re used well, it’s because writers employ as social commentary: as a metaphor for consumerism or elite exploitation of the proletariat. Maybe it’s a quirk of my brain that I’ve read The Woman in Black three times and seen the stage play, but I can’t stand to watch a single episode of Black Mirror because while I’m okay with ghosts, actual human suffering freaks me out too much.
It’s telling, then, that I loved The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z so much.
I expected The Zombie Survival Guide to be a comedy, but it soon became clear that it was deadly serious: Brooks had obviously put a lot of thought (and no small amount of real-life research) into how to survive a zombie outbreak. And it’s not really funny, it’s terrifying because the demands are so high. How do you survive the zombiepocalypse? Get fit; learn martial arts; prep your cellar; buy a property in the highlands; drop out of school or work and get ready. To survive the hordes of the undead, you need to become a crazy survivalist. And you need to start yesterday.
The message of The Zombie Survival Guide is even more horrifying than the thought of the coming plague: the subtext of the book is that even if you were to give up everything you own and love, you are still not ready. Reading The Zombie Survival Guide feels like a personality test at the back of a lifestyle magazine: every page challenges you, asks if you’re prepared to do what’s necessary, and it becomes depressingly evident with each new chapter that the answer is always no. You’d better pray that the zombies never become real because you are royally screwed if they do.
The one consolation is that so is everyone else.
World War Z builds on the idea and scales it up: not only are you personally not ready for a zombie outbreak, but neither is society. World War Z is presented as an oral history of a hypothetical zombie outbreak, consisting of a series of first-person vignettes contributing to a bigger picture. They are more or less universally awful: examples include the US military’s woeful lack of preparation, Israel’s creation of a defensive wall to keep out refugees and South Africa’s adaptation of a horrific plan to curtail the population in case of a rebellion against apartheid into a cold-hearted but practical plan to curb the zombie flood. It presents humanity at its absolute worst, as vain, self-centred, paranoid and stupid, and time has only shown it to be eerily prescient.
There are moments of joy and success to be had that are all the better for feeling hard-fought: the Japanese otaku who becomes a ninja to survive; or the entirely too awesome way the US Army ultimately defeats the zombies with the power of The Trooper. But in the end, the world is still broken, the zombies are still there, lying in the permafrost and the whales are all dead from overfishing and the horde of zombies lurking under the waves…