Monsters and Microbes:

Evolving the Human in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and M. R. Carey’s Hungry Plague Novels

by Rhonda Knight

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

Abstract: [page 50] This essay reads Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954) and M. R. Carey’s Hungry Plague Novels (2014, 2017) through the posthumanist theory of Donna Haraway and the monster theories of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Patricia MacCormack. In order to demonstrate changing conceptions of the human/monster binary, it traces the ways these novels provide a useful analysis of this sociologically-constructed border. Matheson and Carey explore the transformation from human bodies into monstrous bodies through infections by naturally-occurring micro-organisms. These authors focus on the scientific etiology of monsters rather than their supernatural roots. Through the act of biological transformation, these monstrous bodies evolve into posthuman bodies that can express a new physiology of Homo sapiens. Matheson and Carey examine how these posthumans create their societies as echoes of previous ones by embracing the stories and myths of their human predecessors.

Keywords: Carey, Matheson, monsters, posthuman, zombies

Richard Matheson’s horror classic I Am Legend (1954) concludes with the only remaining human character, Robert Neville, declaring “I am legend” as he commits suicide rather than submit to public execution (159). Neville lives in a post-apocalyptic world populated by vampires who are humans transformed by disease-causing bacteria. M. R. Carey’s zombie novels, The Girl with All the Gifts (2014) and The Boy on the Bridge (2017)—known as the Hungry Plague series—share much with Matheson’s novel: a worldwide pandemic, a pathogen turning humans into monsters, and the emergence of a new society that calls into question the very essence of “the human.” By disregarding supernatural causes and stereotypical [page 51] mad scientists, Matheson innovated a different origin story for his monsters, showing them to be the end of a naturally occurring process: an infection by a microbe.1 I Am Legend is one of the first examples of epidemiological horror, a genre whose direction lies in “depict[ing] the transformative power of disease and groups” and in unfolding “the terror of estrangement” as invasive diseases rob the characters of their human qualities (Wald 160). Within the umbrella of this genre and the larger category of outbreak narratives, which are portrayals of threats from potentially species-ending diseases (Wald 1-2), Matheson’s and Carey’s works demonstrate how the formulations of “monster” and “human” have evolved over the decades. For example, Matheson’s vampire society considers the last human a monster and intends to use his death as a defining moment of origin. Half a century later, Carey’s zombies embrace the teachings of the former society and work to help the human minority survive in an atmosphere now hostile to it.

This portrayal of monsters as biologically-transformed humans shifted over time in reference to changes catalogued though developing cultural theories. Ideas prevalent in monster studies, gender theory, and posthumanism all contribute to the way that Matheson’s Cold War vampires can be reimagined as Carey’s liberal humanist zombies. The field of monster studies indicates that to understand the human we must first understand the monsters that societies create. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s foundational essay “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” foregrounds the importance of “under-standing cultures through the monsters they bear” (38). Each of Cohen’s theses demonstrates that monstrosity can never be separated from the cultural fears that created it or the ones that perpetuate it. These theses record the way that fear is grounded in the exceptionalism of humanist thought by constructing the monster as “the Outside, the Beyond” of humankind (40-41). As monitory Others, monsters create and protect boundaries of all sorts, fixing the identity of humankind and each self within it. Yet the nature of the boundary, [page 52] as a rigid mark of difference, has altered over time, and so has the ability of the monster to codify a strict binary between monster/human.

The work of gender theorist Marjorie Garber on transvestism demonstrates the ways that any binary naturally implies “a third,” which is “a space of possibility” that queries “binary thinking and introduces crisis” (11). This “category crisis,” she contends, “is the ground of culture it-self,” because “definitional distinction[s]” always fail, border-lines always become “permeable,” allowing movement be-tween rigid categories (16). Similarly, posthumanism, which explores the “possibility of being and knowing the human,” originates from the idea that “human” is a category that has always been in crisis (MacCormack 523).2 It interrogates the validity and utility of the categories that oppose human, like “animal,” and “monster.” Monsters are not the Other, posthumanist Patricia MacCormack argues. Monsters have always been the norm because no human can approach the “ideal that exists only as a referent to define what deviates from it” (523). Conceiving the monstrous as normal rejects majoritarian thinking, which is “a compulsion to reiterate certain modes of thinking rather than thoughts themselves” (MacCormack 525). As Garber shows, binarism is a Western mode of thought that has been so compulsively reiterated that it has been normalized as a dominant way of categorizing and seeing the world. Such modes of thought inculcate “certain traits, forms, and ways of negotiating the world [as] the only ways” (MacCormack 525). For instance, “alterity is thus conceived as failure” because it is the opposite of “normal” (MacCormack 524). The monster and the transvestite are victims of this binary thinking: the monster finds itself as the negative term in the binary, and the transvestite can find no place on either side of the virgule. Posthumanism embraces so-called alterity and does not con-sider the monster and its ilk as either a nonhuman or a failed human.

Donna Haraway’s work in the history of science has guided posthumanist rejections of anthropocentrism.3 In [page 53] Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, she broadens the meaning of kinship and the processes through which kinship is created. She explains that humans should look at all “earthlings” as kin and “practice better care of” all lifeforms rather than prioritizing their own species (103). The practice of making kin opposes Enlightenment conceptions of humans’ relationship to nature as dominant, linear, atomistic, and independent rather than reciprocal, looping, connected, and interdependent. Haraway advocates for an understanding of the interconnectedness of all species, claiming that the Earth as an organism survives only when humankind realizes its connections to all other species, from diatoms and fungi to apex predators (40-47). She adopts the term chthulucenic thinking, which deemphasizes human exceptionalism and emphasizes humankind’s “response-ability,” which she defines as “cultivating collective knowing and doing” for the good of all species (34). For Haraway, chthulucenic thinking should replace anthropocentric thinking, which is a trap through which Homo sapiens imagine their own superiority to and separation from the world’s ecology. Because anthropocentrism informs majoritarian thinking, humankind cannot see its way out of the prejudices and thought processes, such as binarism, that have led to a false construction of itself and its place in the world.

Posthumanism indicates that the alterity of the transformed bodies in I Am Legend and the Hungry Plague series should not be considered failed humans or monsters, but posthumans—the next iteration of the human. These “monsters” are humans, whose bodies and metabolism have been transformed by a biological agent to the extent that the host organism can no longer interact with the world in the way that it had previously. In outbreak narratives, stereotypical monsters often seek to destroy the existing world because they cannot see themselves as kin to the current inhabitants. Matheson’s vampires at the “end of humanity” are an example of this as they ignore, as Neil Badmington notes, the human’s “capacity for regeneration [page 54] and, quite literally recapitulation” and seek to destroy all former iterations of themselves (“Theorizing” 11). Posthumanism “can build ways for being different in the future” (“Theorizing” 23), but neither Neville nor the vampires are interested in this type of “progress.” On the other hand, Carey’s monsters are harbingers of possibility and acceptance and provide a stark difference to Matheson’s portrayal of “fear, desire, [and] anxiety” (J. Cohen 38, 41).

As outbreak novels that focus on the effects of microorganisms on the body, I Am Legend and the Hungry Plague novels participate in an emerging conversation within environmental science and immunology about the role that infection plays in biological diversity (Diehl 84). “[R]ather than clarifying or delimiting life (humanness),” such conversations “actually obfuscate” the once rigid determinations of what is life and what is human (Diehl 84). When evolutionary changes are discovered in non-human organisms, they are seen as positive adaptations, but since humankind considers itself as fully evolved, infections that could cause widespread systemic changes in human bodies are deemed diseases rather than adaptations. These novels offer different perspectives on what happens when these microbial “invasions” are direct threats to humans’ world dominance (Diehl 84-85).

Set in the late 1970s, I Am Legend imagines a near future that combines a pandemic with post-war concerns about boundaries and order. Simchi Cohen describes the novel as a “narrative saturated in the fear of contagion, in the strict demarcations between human and inhuman, diseased and healthy, normal and abnormal” (48). Neville survives because he protects his boundaries, both literally and metaphorically. A former factory worker who lives in the suburbs, he divides his days among many crucial tasks: fortifying his house, gathering supplies, reading about vampires in literature and mythology, testing new ways to repel the vampires who attack his house, studying the disease, and killing vampires as they sleep. His obsession with protecting his house and [page 55] way of life enables him to consider himself human, healthy, normal, and the opposite of the diseased creatures who try to infect him each night. Diehl points out that Neville’s immunity to the disease and his fortified house are instrumental in allowing him to demarcate the category of human from non-human (103). Even though he is the only remaining human he knows of, he does not see himself as the minority in a world that has changed around him. By holding onto majoritarian thinking which indicates that humans are the world’s dominant species, Neville’s definition of humankind is contingent on a narrow set of qualities, so he is unable to imagine that the vampires surrounding him are the next version of his species.

Matheson characterizes the population’s transformation into vampires as a series of boundary failures—the failures of the nation and the failures of the body—rather than as an evolution. For example, Neville references “the bombings” as the incident that probably spread the vampiris bacteria’s spores throughout the world (44, 75). The invading bacteria, spread by either mutating insects or dust storms caused by “the bombings,” trigger infections (44). These infections affect individuals differently: some die and return as vampires; others become “living vampire[s]” who are nocturnal creatures who suck blood (Abbott 14).4 Neville observes these two types of vampires, whom he categorizes by their ability to die. “True vampires,” who were killed by the infection and “activated entirely by the germ,” cannot be killed by being shot (27, 78). Those who are still “physically alive” can be killed in that way (78). Neville conjectures that the group that congregates outside his house each evening must contain both types and realizes that “but for some affliction he didn’t understand, these people were the same as he” (28). He never considers himself to be wrong in killing either type. He rationalizes that killing the living vampires saves them from a horrible death and resurrection as true vampires (135).

No matter how coldly Neville can kill these creatures, the existence of these two types challenges the humanistic [page 56] philosophy upon which Neville has always built his world. For him, like many others, there exists “a core humanity or common essential feature in terms of which human beings can be defined and understood” (Soper 11-12). Some of the vampires who surround his house each night display “no apparent identity or sense of identity,” but others “retained normal human consciousness, self-awareness, and sensibilities” (Hallab 62-63). When the female vampires see him watching them, they expose themselves “like lewd puppets” and “try to entice him out of the house” (7). While the females deploy their sexuality, his former neighbor, Ben Cortman, another living vampire, taunts him in a different way. Each night he loudly and persistently calls for Neville to come out and join them (6). This adversarial relationship5 has meaning to Neville: as Deborah Christie explains, “[t]heir former friendship transmutes into a kind of perverse game of hide-and-seek,” in which Neville searches for Cortman’s inert body each day to kill him (74). Cortman’s personality has remained through his monstrous transformation. Neville sees the irony in their situation: “If the phrase were not such an obvious anachronism, Neville would have said that Ben Cortman had a zest for life. Sometimes he thought Cortman was happier now than he ever had been before” (107). Cortman outsmarts Neville’s tricks and traps and taunts him when he does (53-55). Neville sees both the living vampires and the true vampires as dangerous because they are predatory beings, but he also realizes that another danger comes through their ability to appeal to his loneliness and his baser instincts and urges. Yet, despite this evidence of some vampires’ retention of identity and personality, he is convinced that they cannot form a community who can accomplish tasks together in order to overcome his defenses (Mathews). He thinks, “There was no union among them. Their need was their only motivation” (11). Neville foresees his life as a struggle to maintain his literal and metaphorical boundaries in order to remain human in a world without humans.6

Neville’s narrow view of the world outside his window, on [page 57] which he must concentrate to ensure his survival, leads him to underestimate the vampires’ ability to form communities that can solve problems and affect their place in the world. Out of Neville’s limited geographic range, other infected vampires, who, like Cortman, retained their personalities and abilities, have created a pill that combines defibrinated blood to feed their hunger and a drug that allows them to tolerate the sun and keep the disease from progressing (144). As Wylie Lenz points out, “Neville comes to understand that the group he had viewed as wholly Other—as an existential threat devoid of humanity—in fact share his motives and interests. He had misapprehended all other occupants of this postapocalyptic world as an undifferentiated mass.” This higher-functioning group is planning a new society that massacres all but the thinking vampires (my term) like themselves, so they send Ruth to impersonate another survivor and spy on Neville. Ruth later confesses that the new society will “do away with all those wretched creatures whom death has cheated” and concludes that it “can’t allow the dead to exist beside the living. Their brains are impaired” (143, 155). This new society has already adopted the binarism of majoritarian thinking, in which there is “an absolute difference between the human and the inhuman: only the former has the capacity for rational thought” (Badmington, Introduction 4). The thinking vampires carefully set up a nexus of associations based on binary thinking that justifies their slaughter of beings unlike them. They start with Cartesian dualism, which assumes “that there are two distinct, mutually exhaustive substances, mind and body, each of which inhabits its own self-contained sphere” (Grosz 6). As a binary mode of thought, which must privilege one term over the other, Cartesian dualism favors the mind over the body. The new vampire society then maps this mind/body binary onto the living/dead binary, so that its members’ ability to think equals “living.” The other vampires, driven by bodily instincts, must become the “dead” and thus be destroyed to fulfill that definition (155). As the new society of thinking [page 58] vampires tries to rewrite their situation into categories of living/dead, its members realize that this new society cannot form while Neville, a third category, exists. He is the category crisis who disrupts the new society’s binary thinking: if Neville is more alive than them, then what are they?

Neville not only functions as a category crisis because he is a living human who challenges the society’s conception of itself, but he also fulfills a new role as a monster. Drawing on Garber’s definition, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s third thesis calls the monster “the harbinger of the category crisis,” who is “a kind of third term that problematizes the clash of extremes” (40). Neville’s actions as well as his existence justify the label of monster. He has killed vampires in numbers untold, including Ruth’s husband (143).7 As a vicious killer of their kind and as an Other who challenges their homogeneity, Neville must be eliminated. According to Cheyenne Mathews, the new society “cannot flourish if he continues to haunt” it. His elimination will be choreographed and carefully staged for a society of viewers. To save him from this pain and humiliation, Ruth offers him suicide pills. In his last moments, Neville does not quite realize that the vampires have become the new humans, but he does realize that the new world has no place for him: “I am the abnormal one now. Normalcy was a majority concept, the standard of the many and not the standard of the one” (159). This realization also allows him to see himself as they see him—an embodiment of their “awe, fear, shrinking horror” (159). Then he under-stands that in taking his own life he will become a true monster, a legend within their culture. He robs them of their mythologizing moment of violence; they cannot be like Cadmus killing the giant serpent and establishing Thebes or the heroes in any other foundation myth that narrates the elimination of a monster. With his last vestige of power, he chooses the type of legend that he will become, deciding to become “a new terror born in death” (159).

The actions of the vampire society demonstrate that it, like Neville, is locked into previous discourses which [page 59] narrowly limn who and what can be human. Instead of embracing any form of thought that might broaden the definition of human, the new society shoehorns itself into an outdated paradigm which perpetuates other discourses based on excluding and defeating Otherness. In the Hungry Plague series, Carey inverts this ending of I Am Legend. Instead of showing how a person, like Neville, can become a monster to a new civilization of posthumans, Carey demonstrates what can happen when a being who is considered monstrous is taught how to become a better, more humane human. Through her humanistic education, Melanie, the protagonist of The Girl with All the Gifts, is able to avoid the actions of Matheson’s society as she fosters acceptance and inclusion instead of hatred and exclusion.

Carey portrays the survival of humanity (as both human-ness and humaneness) through the transference of Western culture into the infected and transformed post-humans. Carey’s zombies are called Hungries.8 They are infected by the parasitic fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which has mutated so that it no longer affects only ants in rainforests but humans as well. Ophiocordyceps unilateralis “hot-wires” its hosts’ central nervous systems (Girl 53). The Hungries are “driven by their instinctual biological programming”: “they not only consume human flesh, … but also copulate and reproduce” (Bishop). When the Hungries have no external stimulus, such as the sight, sound, or smell of a human or animal, they remain totally still and can remain so for years, until one of these biological imperatives stimulates them. During that time, the fungus slowly consumes its host. Because of the Hungries’ sensitivity to human stimuli and their tendency to remain inactive, no one has witnessed their ability to sexually reproduce (and lived to tell about it). Thus, the infected children born of these unions are a mystery to the scientists.

Sexual reproduction by the hosts is only one way that the Ophiocordyceps fungus spreads. The Hungries primarily infect humans through biting or other ways of sharing “blood [page 60] and sweat and spit and tears” (Girl 55). Also, a tree-like mass of fungus can grow out of stationary Hungries and then sporulate in order to infect humans through their respiratory systems. The biological reproduction of the Hungries results in offspring who act differently from their parents. They are found outside the safe zones where only Hungries and junkers, “[s]urvivalist[s] . . . preferring to live off the land and take their chances,” remain (69). Unlike their parents, the children display typical emotional affects and the ability to learn, communicate, and acculturate when taught how to do so. What the scientists do not realize at first is they are symbiotes rather than hosts. Dr. Caldwell eventually discovers how the symbiotic relationship works. She tells Melanie that because the Hungry children are born infected, “the fungus is spread evenly throughout the brain.” The fungus is “thoroughly interwoven with the dendrites of the host’s neurons. In some places it actually replaces them. But it doesn’t feed on the brain,” as it does with its first victims (Carey 379). As long as the “pheromones from living animals” around them are masked, the Hungry children can function like “normal humans.” Stimuli from the pheromones will transform them into ravenous creatures who will feed on any living tissue (Bishop).

Carey’s novels center on these second-generation Hungries, who are all teens and pre-teens, most of whom have been captured outside the safe zones and transferred to a military research facility. There scientists study them to find a cure for the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis disease. Living in this combination of military prison and boarding school, the Hungry children are given a humanistic education in mythology, literature, history, and a geography of a world that no longer exists in order to test the scope of their cognitive abilities. The Hungry children’s bodies are sites of threat and abjection that must be controlled through the chemicals that mask the smell of humans and through the wheelchairs that keep their bodies immobilized with neck, leg, and arm restraints. Because their bodies are seen as the key to the [page 61] cure, the materiality of their bodies is important as an object of study, as a tool which is “a mode of rendering public and communicable what is essentially private” (Grosz 7). Thus, many of the Hungry children are taken to the labs to be dissected and have their physiology and brain chemistry studied. Even though the teachers and researchers do not see the Hungry children as human, by using traditional methods of education as the basis of their experiments, the teachers inadvertently inculcate “the monsters” with the values, morals, and ethics of Western culture.

The facility’s “invested, student-centric pedagogy” creates what Kyle William Bishop calls agentic zombies, personages who understand their own “self-identity and subjectivity,” and can situate themselves within their own historical, cultural, and spatial locations. Carey introduces the Hungry children’s potential for agency at the beginning of The Girl with All the Gifts. Ten-year-old Melanie, a second-generation Hungry, hears a newly-discovered feral child being locked in its room. She thinks that in a month or two there will be “a new face in the classroom—a new boy or girl who hadn’t even learned to talk yet. But they got it fast” (Girl 1). She understands the acculturation process and reflects on her own past, remembering that she “was new herself once, but that’s hard to remember because it was a long time ago. It was before there were any words; there were just things without names, and things without names don’t stay in your mind” (Girl 1). Melanie locates the process of belonging through the acquisition of language. Bishop explains how this curiosity about language and names grounds her sense of identity. She knows that her name Melanie means “the black girl” in Greek but realizes that it is not a good name for her because she is pale. She likes the name Pandora, which means “the girl with all the gifts,” and wishes it were her name (Girl 1, 11). Her knowledge of Pandora stems from the Greek myths that Miss Justineau teaches them. This teacher further establishes the Hungry children’s agency by encouraging them to discuss the stories that they hear. [page 62]

Stories, such as the Pandora myth, become one of Melanie’s main points of orientation and reference as an agentic posthuman. In order to process her love for Miss Justineau,9 developed because the teacher treats her humanely, Melanie writes a story in which she becomes a hero, “like Pandora … like Achilles too,” saving a stand-in for Miss Justineau from a monster (Girl 16). This story foreshadows the moment not long after when Melanie does save Miss Justineau from the junkers who have overrun the facility. Melanie’s adrenaline and the smell of the humans transform her into a Hungry, and she rips out an attacker’s throat. At this moment, she realizes the significance of her natural posthuman physiology, uninhibited by chemicals or restraints: “The shock of that first taste of blood and warm flesh is so intense that it almost makes Melanie faint. Nothing in her life has ever been this good” (Girl 113). Yet, when “Melanie is coming down” from her ravenous, Hungry state, she queries her own identity as a human. She ponders the meaning of her existence, wondering who and what she is (Girl 123, 126). Melanie contextualizes these ontological questions through her humanistic education: “All she has—to describe to herself how she feels now—is stories she’s been told, about Moses not getting to see the land where there was all the milk, and Aeneas running away after Troy fell down” (Girl 136). Melanie sees these as stories of disappointment and loss, but these references also situate Melanie as a hero who journeys to begin a new culture. When she and four humans must flee the research facility and journey to Beacon, the other safe zone, she begins her own mythic quest to create a new society based on the humanistic values she has learned.

Melanie’s education has taught her how humans should act, but when she encounters a group of feral Hungry children, she begins to witness other ways of being. Melanie rarely finds in her traveling companions the noble actions ascribed to humans in her reading. For example, Dr. Caldwell, the scientist, only sees her as a specimen to dissect,10 Sergeant Eddie Parks wants to kill her, and Private [page 63] Kieran Gallagher is afraid of her. Only Miss Justineau sees her as a person. Melanie craves a sense of belonging, which she discovers in a community of feral Hungry children. They show marks of a tribal culture, with non-verbal communication and the display of tokens that signal individuality and hierarchy (Girl 261). She recognizes their state as primitive compared to hers and tells Miss Justineau that “They probably didn’t even have names. It didn’t seem like they could talk” (318). However, she recognizes her biological kinship to this group and reports that she cried when she saw them interacting because she felt like she missed them, even when she had never even known them (Girl 318). Melanie compares their situation with her own, concluding that the feral Hungries have never been “taught to be people” (Girl 365). However, unlike her classmates in the facility, she knows that they have learned how to become a family (Girl 365). She wants to create “family” for all sentient beings, both human and Hungry. Her thinking reflects Haraway’s proclamations that “making kin,” regardless of ancestry or genealogy or genius or species, is the solution to a livable future (Haraway 102-103).

Melanie reaches her agentic potential, becoming the girl with all the gifts, Pandora, the bringer of trouble, the founder of culture, and the maker of kin, when she discovers that the way to Beacon has been blocked by a miles-long wall of gray, cloud-like fungus. Melanie has heard enough of the conversation between Dr. Caldwell and the others to know that this is the reproductive stage in the Ophiocordyceps’s life cycle. The wall of mycelia comes from fungal stalks that burst directly out of the bodies of the oldest Hungries. Some of the stalks also have sporangia, seed pods that can disseminate the Ophiocordyceps broadly, infecting humans as an inhalant, where before body fluids were the only transmitters (Girl 251, 289, 369-70). She tricks the dying Sergeant Parks into setting the fungus alight and then explains to him that the Hungry Plague carries its own cure. That cure, however, rests in the elimination of the surviving humans and the [page 64] development of a second generation, who will be posthumans. The first generation of Ophiocordyceps’s victims is inevitably incapacitated when the pathogen overtakes their brains. The second generation is capable of so much, she says, if only humankind would “let them grow up” and stop trying to preserve an old, dying way of life by killing them and cutting them up. When the children grow up, they will “be the next people … who make everything okay again” (398-99). Kimberly Hurd Hale and Erin A. Dolgoy claim that in this moment Melanie has ceased to consider herself as a citizen of the old world but instead thinks of herself as the founder of a new one (357). However, this does not mean that she has abandoned her cultural roots as a member of humankind. Instead, she is employing her education by making the hard choice that many leaders must. As Bishop explains, she “sees the only viable future: a future of natural evolution, a future that will work only when the warring remnants of humanity are gone” so that the next version of humankind can thrive. Hale and Dolgoy argue that “Carey depicts a possible future that challenges regnant views of humanness and humanity” through a Darwinian evolution that puts a “violent and painful end to Homo sapiens at the hand of a superior version” (345, 349). Even though Homo sapiens’ ending is violent, Carey creates a hopeful transcendence in which the alterity of the Hungries does not represent the failure of humankind but a reset that demonstrates how these monsters might enact humane practices, perhaps even better than the remnants of Homo sapiens.

As Melanie’s education has shown her, stories can be the creators and perpetuators of dangerous categorizations but only when they inculcate practices like binary and anthropogenic thinking. Because Melanie understands the value of these stories when divorced from such practices, she ensures the cultural transmission from the old world to the new one by protecting Miss Justineau from infection. Miss Justineau must wear an environmental suit or remain within the air-tight mobile laboratory that the group has discovered in its [page 65] travels. Miss Justineau, like Neville before her, has become the last known remaining human, defined by boundaries. She accepts this role as a teacher and conveyer of culture. She, too, will be a legend, but not the monster of a cautionary tale whose invisible threats control a culture. Instead, her legend will come through her ability to teach Hungry children the values and ethics of their ancestors. As the novel ends, Melanie has assembled her first class of feral children, and Miss Justineau begins teaching them language. Carey assures his readers that “Greek myths and quadratic equations will come later” (Girl 403). With this first lesson, Melanie and Miss Justineau form a partnership that starts building a civilization with the Hungry children.

Even though Melanie’s story seems to end with the destruction of humankind in The Girl with All the Gifts, Carey complicates this ending in the epilogue to The Boy on the Bridge. As a prequel to The Girl with All the Gifts, this novel narrates the story of the crew of the mobile laboratory that Melanie and the others find on their journey. In the later novel’s conclusion, some of the members of that crew, Colonel Isaac Carlisle, Lieutenant Daniel McQueen, and Lance Bombardier Kat Foss, decide to create an enclave in the Scottish Cairngorms mountain range because they have discovered that Ophiocordyceps test samples did not reproduce there. They hope that the tropical fungus cannot survive in the Scottish tundra. Their community is founded on the binarism of anthropocentric thinking. Realizing that Homo sapiens are now a minority, they see themselves as the prey of the Hungries. Showing the same human instincts that Neville does, they decide that isolation is the only way to protect the species of Homo sapiens.

The epilogue to The Boy on the Bridge, which takes place twenty years after the main plot, displays the ways that Melanie’s chthulucenic thinking has continued to evolve and Carlisle’s anthropocentric thinking has not. Carey stages a conversation between the two, which creates pathos for the readers as they see each character naïvely rely on his or her [page 66] own assumptions about the other culture. At their meeting, Melanie and Carlisle continually misunderstand the other’s intentions. When Melanie tells Carlisle that they have been looking for surviving humans and hoping to find some, he takes this as an aggressive statement, believing that her purpose is to wipe them out. Even when she explains to him that she knows his community is “barely surviving” and they are suffering from malnutrition, he is incapable of imagining that she is offering humanitarian aid (Boy 388). She is the first to realize the deep misunderstanding: “Melanie laughs—in pure embarrassment, as if she can’t believe they were coming at this conversation from such different angles. That things she took as given still needed to be said” (Boy 389). The isolation of Carlisle’s group has prevented it from developing any understanding of the Hungries. It still fosters an anthropocentric distrust of the Other.

Even though, twenty years earlier, Melanie had hastened the transformation of all remaining human survivors into zombie-like Hungries, she still feels a kinship with and responsibility to humankind. This is the reason that her community of posthumans continues to search for any enclaves of survivors, and this is the reason that they want to help Carlisle’s community flourish. Melanie believes that the world is a big enough place to support humans and post-humans. Melanie’s philosophy mirrors Haraway’s explanation that “kin” is “an enduring mutual, obligatory, non-optional, you-can’t-just-cast-that-away-when-it-gets-in-convenient, enduring relatedness that carries consequences” (Paulson). “Making kin” means realizing that these relationships across species already exist and then working to support them in a “response-able” way (Haraway 4-6). Melanie has taught the members of her posthuman community that their labor is important to sustain this isolated human community in the Scottish tundra. They bring “fresh fruit and protein” and offer to grow grain for them on the more arable land below (Boy 389). She says, “You’ll tell us what you need. What we don’t have, we’ll find [page 67] or make” (Boy 389). Carlisle has trouble processing humanitarian acts from a being whom he considers to be a monster, one whose species once consumed humans and whose existence has robbed the humans of their way of life. In explaining why the Hungries would help humans, Melanie exemplifies how she has internalized and transformed Justineau’s stories of war, strife, and hope into a chthulucentric philosophy. She tells Carlisle: “we thought you were all gone and we’re so happy that we were wrong” (Boy 389). They are searching for other human survivors in France and Switzerland, so “that your people and my people can meet, talk, and learn from each other” (389-99). She further explains, “you’d just have been legends to us, otherwise …. I know how legends work. In a few generations, there’d be a thousand wild stories about you” (Boy 389). Unlike Matheson’s vampires, the members of Melanie’s community do not want stories of extinct humans to build their community upon. They want kinship and interaction. They do not want to turn the last remaining humans into stories but to hear the stories which the humans tell.

As examples of epidemiological horror, Matheson’s and Carey’s novels demonstrate that microbial invasions can transform humans into posthumans who can evolve past any recognizable human physiology. Each author’s consideration of the posthuman reflects much about his own time, but both focus on the importance of stories as the foundations and transmitters of culture. As inheritors of past generations, their posthumans remain Homo narrans, man the storyteller, who builds meaning, identities, and community through the exchange of stories. Thus, Neville chooses to become a specter in a cautionary tale, written by a society built on the fear of difference. Carey’s novels remake the purpose of monsters: no longer do they have to be the scary Other; instead, they can be better versions of humankind, ones worthy of heroic stories themselves, all because they learned from the stories of the previous generations. [page 68]


1. Stacey Abbott and Laura Diehl locate Matheson’s innovation in relation to mid-century developments of medicine, science, technology, and the horror genre. Wylie Lenz and Cheyenne Mathews focus on the explicit and implicit racism in Neville’s conception of the vampire as Other.

2. Posthuman has become such an expansive and vexed term. In his 2003 book The Post-Human Condition, Robert Pepperell uses the word in various ways. One of his definitions points “to the fact that our traditional view of what constitutes a human being is now undergoing a profound transformation. It is argued that we can no longer think about being human in the same way we used to” (iv), which aligns with MacCormack’s formulation. Ten years after Pepperell’s book, Francesca Ferrando outlined even more ways that the “umbrella term” can be deployed, and the usages and their politicization have only multiplied since then (26).

3. Even though the essays published in Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature are foundational texts in understanding posthumanism, Haraway has rejected the label “posthumanist.” She says “I am a compostist, not a posthumanist: we are all compost, not posthuman (Staying 101-102). Her break with the term comes from the complexity of the ways it is used and its popular associations with technological enhancements of the body rather than with the rejection of anthropocentrism (Gane and Haraway 140).

4. Since the novel is written from a close third-person narration, Matheson does not offer much exposition to help define these types and their differences. Their characteristics slowly unfold as Neville observes them and reasons them out (Lenz). The readings by Abbott, Koenig-Woodyard, and Christie have been instrumental in unpacking the nuances in Matheson’s “true vampires” and “living vampires.” [page 69]

5. Some critics read this relationship homoerotically, arguing that Neville’s isolation either intensifies his latent homosexuality or makes Cortman, because his personhood survives his transformation into a vampire, an object of desire for Neville. See Simchi Cohen and Jamil Khader.

6. See Mathias Clasen’s discussion of the ways that isolation could have affected Neville’s psyche and abilities to reason (319-23).

7. Chris Koenig-Woodyard estimates that Neville could have slain tens of thousands of vampires in the three and a half years when he was the last remaining human (104).

8. In the books, Carey never capitalizes the name Hungry. I do so here to designate that the humans in the books think of them as an antagonistic group, even if the first-generation Hungries themselves have lost the concept of community.

9. Ruzbeh Babaee et al. explain how “psychological defense mechanisms” allow Melanie and Miss Justineau to create “their mutually-beneficial relationship that spurred them to survive in their harsh, unforgiving world.”

10. Hale and Dolgoy show how Caldwell is an example of “human racism,” a transhumanist term that “prioritizes human beings over other intelligent life-forms” (351). Caldwell bases her beliefs on biology, which neatly chimes with older exclusionary race theories that were grounded in the so-called sciences.

Works Cited

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Rhonda Knight has a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. She is Professor of English at Coker University, where she currently holds the James W. Lemke Endowed Chair in College Service and Leadership. She teaches first-year writing, medieval literature, and early modern literature. As a researcher, she has published articles on subjects from Sir Gawain to Doctor Who. Stage Matters: Props, Bodies and Space in Shakespearean Performance, a collection co-edited with Annalisa Castaldo, was published in 2018. Another collection, co-edited with Donald Quist and titled Who Makes the Franchise?: Essays on Fandom and Wilderness Texts in Popular Media, is forthcoming from McFarland.

MLA citation (print):

Knight, Rhonda. "Monsters and Microbes: Evolving the Human in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and M. R. Carey’s Hungry Plague Novels." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 7, no. 1, 2021, pp. 50-72.