Here’s a brief segment of a Richard Matheson interview on writing. Note Matheson mentions he writes in longhand and will not use a computer.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Richard Matheson’s What Dreams May Come sets itself up as a memoir of sorts (SNARK ALERT: unfortunately some memoirs deserve that tag, too), a piece of nonfiction dictated from the afterlife. Obviously, it’s a novel, the story of Chris Nielsen, who dies in a car accident, and whose spirit is transported to the afterlife, or a realm of the afterlife known as Summerland.
Before Chris’ spirit goes to Summerland, he finds himself stuck in a sort of purgatory in which he has to accept he’s dead. What keeps him in this state is his wife, Ann, whose grief he witnesses, and his desire to assure her that she’s going to be fine.
Once he finally enters Summerland, he’s guided and acquainted to this level of the afterlife by his cousin, Albert.
Like Dante’s visions of the afterlife, Matheson’s afterlife consists of many levels and Summerland isn’t quite heaven, though it’s not unpleasant–it’s a place of perpetual sunlight and summer where spirits come to work to get to higher levels, a heavenly corporate ladder of sorts.
Though Chris finds Summerland pleasant enough, he never finds it satisfying because he longs for his wife. His love for her seems boundless, and when she commits suicide on Earth, his love takes him on a journey to hell to rescue her, to get her spirit to see life/the afterlife is worthwhile.
The novel is uneven, an OK read.
Matheson’s afterlife is New Age-y and universalist in outlook: Buddhists get Nirvana, Christians get Heaven (eventually, although it’s not an immediate reunification with God), and Vahalla is probably in there, too. He explores several theological/philosophical concepts, in particular the soul’s attempt to move level by level in the afterlife, until reunion with God is acquired. Most often this climb up requires rebirth on Earth, until the soul is perfected.
Matheson also plays with the fiction/nonfiction them by adding a bibliography of book about death and the afterlife at the end of the novel.
Its weakness: the idealistic, overly sentimental relationship between Chris and Ann. It’s almost too perfect. Granted the novel is fantasy, but their relationship lacks in realism, though Chris protests it wasn’t perfect—like most couples they fought over money, they almost got divorced—his protests are unconvincing. They always make up and smoothe things over perfectly, even in their most difficult journey—guiding Ann into the afterlife to be reborn.
As I’ve been reading Richard Matheson’s What Dreams May Come, I’ve come across some punctuation habits that have been throwing me. I’m sure I’ve seen the following use of the semicolon in other books and stories, but it’s standing out in this novel.
Here are a couple of examples:
“I wondered what my own appearance was; knowing that Albert wouldn’t tell me if it was unpleasant in any way.”
“The chilling sensation again; the hint of ‘another place.’”
Wouldn’t commas suffice here, or are these semicolons used for rhetorical effect, making for a stronger pause? Or something completely different?
I have begun reading Richard Matheson’s What Dreams May Come and was deeply touched by Matheson’s dedication page; his dedication reads:
with grateful love, to my wife for adding the sweet measure of her soul to my existence
The novel, of course, is about a man who dies and risks literal hell to save his wife because the afterlife isn’t good enough, isn’t paradise without her love.
I’m definitely picking up on a theme: In I Am Legend, about the last human on earth, Matheson explores the longing (yearning is Robert Olen Butler’s term for it) of love, of desire as the protagonist Robert Neville longs not only for human companionship but for love, the love of his wife and family, for that love we crave from another person.
The love we lose in death or divorce or even separation. The love, at least to me, that is stronger than the yearning for a god.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Don’t expect Will Smith’s movie I Am Legend (2007) if you read Richard Matheson’s original 1954 novel. As with any novel-to-film adaptation, directors take poetic license: the film’s vampires, for instance, are soul-less brutes.
Though the film holds up on its own, it’s no match for the novel.
Robert Neville is the only human left in a post-apocalytic world inhabited by vampires. To survive, he locks himself in a boarded, locked and garlic-filled home at night, and stalks around a devastated Los Angeles killing the vampires by day.
While the novel has vampires—a horror staple—it works just as well as science fiction (it’s in fact part of Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series, the books of which I’ve been trying to find and read, in part as another reading project, as well as to learn from SF masters). The vampirism, Neville discovers, is a disease, and an apparently uncurable one.
And though Neville struggles to understand the disease, it turns out (spoiler alert) he’s the legend of which the novel’s title speaks.
The novel is a dark but philosophically powerful book, ultimately humanistic in outlook, despite its ending.