With the possible exception of romance, horror must be the most despised of literary genres. Yet anyone who has tried to write a scary story, or even tell one to credulous children, knows how hard it is to find a fresh angle on this old, almost primeval style of narrative. And horror, like slapstick comedy, is unforgiving—fear and laughter bypass the rational part of our brain, and grab us instead in some deeper part of our psyche. Either the storyteller hits the mark or misses completely.
Richard Matheson ranks among those who hit the mark—the bullseye here being the reader's central nervous system—and belongs on any short list of the greatest horror writers in literary history. Stephen King has cited him as his primary influence, and Matheson's name is not out of place alongside those of King, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch and Bram Stoker and a handful of other prominent heirs of Edgar Allan Poe. Not long ago, the Horror Writers Association named Matheson's I Am Legend as the vampire book of the century—infuriating fans of Twilight and Buffy, no doubt, but it was the obvious and proper choice—and even people who don't recognize his name are familiar with Matheson's stories, as presented on The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Night Gallery and other TV shows, or in movies by Steven Spielberg, Roger Corman and other influential filmmakers.
But Matheson is ambivalent about his connection to the horror story. He prefers to see his specialty as 'terror'—a subtler effect, in his opinion, than the blood and gore of the horror genre. At his best, Matheson could evoke spine-tingling fear through the sheer unrelenting possibility of what might happen. (See Duel, a 1971 car chase film with a demented twist— directed by 24-year-old Steven Spielberg and based on a story and script by Matheson—for a textbook example of how this is done.) If horror is, as I suspect, the most existential of literary genres, Matheson is that modern master who understands the implications of this truth. Like Kierkegaard, who claimed our vertigo in a high place results from our knowledge that we are free to jump over the edge, Matheson comprehends that terror can never be reduced to the present moment, but always hides in the unconstrained freedom of what comes next.
Matheson’s most ambitious attempt to break out of his pigeonhole as a horror writer is his 1978 novel What Dreams May Come. In fact, the hero of this book, Chris Nielsen, is a middle-aged screenplay author who has come to lament all the years he spent contriving scary stories. Acknowledging his "failure as a writer," Nielsen looks back with disgust at "the host of scripts I’d written which did no one any good and, many harm." He arrives at a harsh judgment over, in his words, “what I might have done and how irrevocably I fell short of almost every mark.”
Ah, it’s too late for Nielsen. He's already dead when he arrives at this conclusion. In fact, he's already dead at the start of Matheson’s novel. Usually when an author offers up a deceased protagonist on page one—for instance, in Paul Auster's Leviathan or Martin Amis's Time’s Arrow—we need to get ready for a book filled with flashbacks. But Matheson has a different agenda here. He wants to explore the afterlife. His hero's death in a car crash starts him on a journey to the hereafter. The manuscript of the novel is presented as his post-mortem account, communicated to a psychic who has spent six months transcribing Nielsen's description of life after death. She delivers the finished manuscript to the dead man's brother, who now shares it with us—and adds a bit of advice. "If this manuscript is true, all of us had better examine our lives. Carefully."
As this prelude makes clear, Matheson is on different terrain here. Instead of Lovecraft and Poe his role models include Dante and the Orpheus myth. Shakespeare provides the title and epigraph:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause.
Thus says Hamlet, in Shakespeare’s finest horror story (which starts with a ghost, and ends up with more dead characters than a slasher film). Matheson himself is not averse to inserting a few gruesome scenes into his life-after-death story. He offers up his alternatives to both the Inferno and Paradiso in this novel, and delivers some hellacious encounters not for the squeamish. But if I say that this novel has redeeming qualities, I am talking about more than just Matheson's skill as a writer. His theology has more redemption than damnation.
Is it appropriate for me to use the word 'theology' in describing this novel? Matheson almost requires us to do so. How many novels include a bibliography? Yet Matheson gives us six pages of references to books about the hereafter, and urges people to "read them all." "You will find it an enlightening— and extraordinary—experience." For the first time in his career, he adds an introduction to a novel, using it to explain that “only one aspect of it is fictional: the characters and their relationships. With few exceptions, every other detail is derived exclusively from research.” In short, this isn't just a story; it's a belief system.
Okay, it’s also a story, and a very gripping one. You can’t take it with you, or so they say, but even dead people have baggage they bring with them into the next world—at least emotional baggage. They have problems and choices, and face consequences for bad decisions, and not just for those of their past life. Our protagonist is especially concerned about the wife he left behind. In fact, Matheson's novel turns the traditional Orpheus myth on its head. In his reworking, the dead spouse wants to reclaim the living one. But midway through the novel, Matheson adds a new twist when Nielsen's wife Ann commits suicide. Now our dead hero embarks on a mission to rescue his soulmate from a fate in the afterlife that is literally "worse than death."
What kind of theology is embedded here? I believe the term used in religious circles is "cafeteria spirituality." Matheson finds room on his plate for a bit of Hinduism, a helping of Christianity, a smidgen of Tibetan Buddhism, and various other doctrinal odds and ends, all garnished with a veneer of New Age mysticism. There's even a place for atheists in Matheson's afterlife—where they can continue disbelieve in the afterlife. You can’t get much more tolerant than that.
The author's protestations notwithstanding, I’m not about to place this volume on the non-fiction shelves in my library. But I give Matheson credit for imparting some intellectual substance to his musings, and constructing a view of life after death that is thought-provoking even when implausible. And the little touches make all the difference in the world. I was delighted to read that music fans in the hereafter attend concerts where they enjoy the inspired melodies of Beethoven’s Eleventh Symphony. I imagine jazz fans like me can finally hear the Buddy Bolden band live in concert. Okay, maybe dead in concert.
Matheson has boasted that What Dreams May Come is his most important book. He has expressed pride in its positive impact on readers, some of whom, the author relates, no longer fear death after reading his book. So the writer who spent most of his career creating fear now takes a turn at relieving it. Nice twist, no? And I suspect that Matheson saw some karmic value in this novel for himself in addition to the help it gave to his readers.
Of course, Matheson didn’t give up horror—uh, excuse me, terror—stories after What Dreams May Come. Shortly after its publication he collaborated with his son Richard Christian Matheson on "Where There’s A Will," another tale that starts after the funeral of its hero. Only in this case the protagonist wakes up buried alive in a coffin. So much for karmic redemption.
Welcome to my year of magical reading. Each week during the course of 2012, I will explore an important work of fiction that incorporates elements of magic, fantasy or the surreal. My choices will cross conventional boundary lines of genre, style and historical period—indeed, one of my intentions in this project is to show how the conventional labels applied to these works have become constraining, deadening and misleading.
In its earliest days, storytelling almost always partook of the magical. Only in recent years have we segregated works arising from this venerable tradition into publishing industry categories such as "magical realism" or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some other 'genre' pigeonhole. These labels are not without their value, but too often they have blinded us to the rich and multidimensional heritage beyond category that these works share.
This larger heritage is mimicked in our individual lives: most of us first experienced the joys of narrative fiction through stories of myth and magic, the fanciful and phantasmagorical; but only a very few retain into adulthood this sense of the kind of enchantment possible only through storytelling. As such, revisiting this stream of fiction from a mature, literate perspective both broadens our horizons and allows us to recapture some of that magic in our imaginative lives.