Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #41:-
MATHESON AND SON
The cover blurb from Stephen King declares that Richard Matheson was “The author who influenced me the most as a writer”, and yet there’s a moment of disconnect when you look at the slim volume that is A STIR OF ECHOES (Tor pb, 211pp, £7.99) and compare it with the doorstops that have become King’s prevailing modus operandi.
Originally published in 1958 Stir is every bit as entertaining now as it must have felt then, though of course it brings with it a considerable cultural baggage, not least of which is the 1999 film of the book, in which a slightly histrionic Kevin Bacon attacked his cellar floor with a pick-axe and a vengeance. The plot is relatively straightforward, with family man and all round good guy Tom Wallace turned into a kind of psychic sponge after dabbling in hypnotism. He has premonitions and starts to pick up on the feelings of others, a window into their souls and all the dirty little secrets that they hide even from themselves, information that he really doesn’t want to know. There’s much worse to come though when Tom sees a woman in his house late at night, and starts to wonder if she is the spirit of somebody who was murdered there. The woman needs his help, but Tom really doesn’t know what to do or how to deal.
Economically written and plotted, this is an elegant novel that touches on the supernatural, but uses it in a story that is all about human nature, and much of its effectiveness lies in the characterisation. Tom is a fully rounded individual, the sceptic who gets his comeuppance when he somewhat unwisely challenges a true believer to prove his case. And yet what happens to him also seems undeserved, in that Tom is a decent guy placed in a near impossible position, gifted a power that places his relationship with his wife and child in peril as his visions grow more powerful. We can easily identify with his dilemma, in that so many of our relationships flourish and grow in the light of what we don’t know about the other person; Tom doesn’t want to know that his work colleague is a wife abuser or that the sexy neighbour has unwelcome designs on his body, and learning stuff like this handicaps his ability to function socially, eventually placing his marriage in jeopardy. Like Cassandra he finds that uncommon knowledge can be a terrible curse, with the line between sanity and madness approached. That it isn’t crossed is down to the fact that ultimately Tom finds a way to do the right thing, blunders into a solution for what ails him and enables a restless spirit to find peace. Human malice and folly are the reasons for what is happening and, whatever unnatural twists and turns the narrative may take, the story can only be resolved with a human, all too human denouement. There’s a timeless quality to much of what happens – we might not be so wary of hypnotism nowadays, but sadly things like misogyny and murder are still very much part of the plat du jour.
Matheson died in 2013, a cruel year that also took from us James Herbert and Joel Lane, but his legacy will endure. He was truly one of the greats labouring in the field of speculative fiction, and this short novel provides an eloquent testimony to his genius.
The point of departure for Richard Christian Matheson’s novella THE RITUAL OF ILLUSION (PS Publishing jhc/signed jhc, 118pp, £15/£28) is the disappearance of actress Sephanie Vamore after a car in which she is travelling crashes with the death of all the other passengers including her director boyfriend who was driving. And later, several people connected to the film industry are slaughtered at a party at a producer’s house in Malibu, with no explanation for what happened or how, the only suspect an extravagantly large man who disappears from the trunk of a police car en route to the station. At back of all this, hinted at in the text, is a book with instructions on how to perform the so called ritual of illusion, which will grant power and influence to whoever enacts it.
Written in a collage style and predominantly told in the form of dialogue extracts, this is a daringly different exercise in storytelling, keeping the reader in a state of perpetual uncertainty as all the members of the dramatis personae chip in with their own versions of the truth, and enough alarums and excursions, footnotes and personal asides, to give Shakespeare a run for his money. It is very much a product of its time, turning the sound bite of celebrity culture and commercial excess into an art form and forcing the media to eat the message in an orgy of cannibalistic frenzy. There’s also a golem, or at least a passable substitute. Underneath the surface vim it clinically and wittily exposes the mercenary nature of the Hollywood dream factory, holding our values up to a harsh light and questioning the things we have been taught to hold dear. At bottom it is about the relationship between the movie makers and their audience, the ways in which the latter will chew up and spit out the former, the needs and expectations we place on our stars, the creation of a new pantheon in an age of cynicism when all our deities must tread softly on feet of clay. For insight into the character of the great whore that is Hollywood and sheer verve of execution it reads like the offspring of a pity fuck Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge gave to Theodore Roszak’s Flicker in a back alley on a night when the stars were perfectly aligned and James Ellroy gazed down on them from a flophouse window. I loved it.