Robert Neville is all alone. He leads his life with seeming easiness – doing chores around the house, fixing things, cooking, and so on. But he is alone. Not lonely alone; but alone alone. Eerily so. And that eeriness will not get to you so easily, because just like me, you must have seen the movie, or at least heard the story from someone. But still, in the first few pages of the book, Neville’s aloneness is striking. He goes around the house, doing things, and keeps thinking about “them.” We are not told who “they” are, but just by reference, we know that they’re not good news. And as nightfall comes, and as Neville locks himself inside his house and plays loud music so that he can’t hear their sounds, we slowly begin to feel his aloneness. His solitary existence, surrounded by blood-thirsty vampires, not only scares us, but bothers our sense of complacency. Matheson takes us on Neville’s journey, forcing us to wonder what we would do if we were the last living being on this planet.
You might be familiar with the premise of the story – almost everyone in the world has fallen prey to a mysterious bacteria that turns them into vampires, who sleep by day, and awaken at night, roaming the streets in search of fresh blood. Neville is the last man alive, uninfected. And although the story is as much of a sci-fi thriller, it is also a story about the future of our world if wars continue to happen, the role of morality in a world that’s slowly coming to an end, the changes that would happen in a man if he were suddenly thrust into loneliness for three long years. Matheson does a great job juggling all these different ideas in the book – and most importantly, the book is a success with just one major character who has to bear the burden of all the action and thought. Neville, not so surprisingly, talks to himself all the time. His inner monologue is often funny, at times thought-provoking. There are many instances of hilarity in the novel, which breaks away suddenly from the tense atmosphere it creates, shaking the reader into laughter and then coming back to its grave subject. It works so well!
I cannot help but mention the book with reference to the movie, since I saw it first. The movie takes substantial liberty in changing the story-line. The reason that the virus spread in the movie was due to a cure for cancer; in the book the spreading of the virus and the quick mutation of humans into vampires is discussed at length. A scientifically sound reader would make more sense of it than I did, and if would be kind enough, would even explain it to me later! More importantly, in the movie, Robert Neville was a scientist, who actively looks for a cure for the virus. But in the book, Neville is just a common man. He teaches himself everything he needs to know about the virus by going to the library and bringing back books. That to me, is much more believable than the happenstance of the last man being one who can cure the virus. To add to the feeling of loneliness, the book’s Neville doesn’t even have a dog, unlike his movie counterpart.
Very rarely have I read books after watching the movie – but I’m glad I read this. I think I like Matheson, the writer.