On a morning in January 1976, a man named Robert Neville walks around his house, carefully checking to see if it’s well-fortified. He checks the planks and boards that he’s hammered in front of all the windows, and checks his private watertank for damage. As he surveys the house, he considers the fact that he can never calculate exactly when the sun goes down—and therefore, he can never calculate exactly when “they” will arrive. After inspecting his house, Neville goes back inside, and notices his reflection in a cracked mirror he fastened to the front door. He makes a mental note to place more garlic on the door.
The novel begins on a note of uncertainty: a man is fortifying his house, but we don’t know why. Neville keeps referring to “they,” without explaining his thought process. Matheson heightens the suspense by slowly giving readers more and more information about who “they” are, rather than stating things outright. Notice that Neville uses garlic and mirrors—two traditional methods for fighting vampires—to fortify his house, hinting at who “they” might be.
The inside of Neville’s house is “entirely functional”—just a bed and some tools. Inside, Neville retrieves a hammer and some nails, and walks outside to finish fortifying the house. Neville is a tall, athletic man, thirty-six years old. As he hammers more boards to the window, he surveys the wreckage of the houses to either side of his own. Neville burned the houses surrounding his own—“to prevent them from jumping on his roof.”
The fact that Neville could burn down the houses to either side of his own suggests that he is on his own—there aren’t many other people, if any, nearby. Also, Matheson paints a grim picture of Neville’s living quarters in this section: he spends so much of his time protecting himself that he has no time to decorate.
Neville smokes a cigarette, has a drink, and then goes back outside to his “hothouse.” Inside the hothouse, he retrieves a basketful of garlic. Neville used to find the smell of garlic disgusting; now, he barely notices it. Neville makes garlic necklaces, and proceeds to hang them all over the outside of his house. As the day drags on, he carves sharp wooden stakes, noting that, no matter how many stakes he carves, they’re always “gone in no time.” Neville continues working until the evening. Suddenly, he checks the time—it’s almost sundown, meaning that “they’re” coming soon.
So far, we know that “they” don’t like garlic or mirrors, they come out after sundown, and Neville can fight them with wooden stakes. If readers have seen even a few horror movies, they’ll probably be able to guess that Neville is defending himself against vampires.
Neville opens his enormous freezer and retrieves frozen vegetables and lamb; he proceeds to cook himself dinner. As Neville eats dinner in his home, he hears the voice of someone named Ben Cortman, shouting, “Come out, Neville.” Neville ignores the voice, finishes his meal, and tries to drown out the voices outside by listening to some records. Neville begins to think about “the women.” Outside, there are women, trying to lure him outside by posing seductively. As he listens to the music, Neville reads a medical text about blood, and tries not to think about sex. He tries to accept that “they” have forced him to be celibate for the rest of his life. Neville tries to focus on the music, but becomes so frustrated that he breaks the record over his knee.
Matheson conveys Neville’s simultaneous repulsion and attraction to the vampires gathered outside his house. On one hand, Neville hates the vampires—he fears them and tries his hardest to ignore them. Yet Neville also seems strangely drawn to them, and is sexually attracted to the female vampires (beautiful female vampires are common tropes in vampire fiction). Neville seems to be starved for companionship—sexual or otherwise. His life is lonely, silent, and celibate, and he can barely stand it.
Neville changes into his pajama bottoms—he’s never worn pajama tops since serving in Panama during “the war”—and goes to his bedroom. He looks at the large cross tattooed on his chest—a tattoo that he acquired in Panama, and which may have saved his life. In bed, Neville tries to avoid thinking about women, especially about a woman named Virginia.
Matheson drops a few more hints about where the vampires may have come from. The novel takes place in the 1970s—twenty years after Matheson wrote it—and there seems to have been some kind of serious war, in which Neville served. Also notice that Neville’s enemies don’t like crosses (another traditional sign of a vampire) and that Neville seems to be mourning a woman named Virginia.