Reviewed by Ted Gioia

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.
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
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.

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
Symphony.  I imagine jazz fans like me can finally hear the
Buddy Bolden band live in concert.  Okay, maybe
dead in

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

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature, and popular
culture. His newest book is
The Jazz Standards: A
Guide to the Repertoire.
The Year
(click here)
What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson
Click on image to purchase
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
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

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.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice

Week 38:  Blindess by José

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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