Sunday, July 7, 2013

Lit Corner: Remembering Matheson By Reading *What Dreams May Come*

Having grown to admire Richard Matheson's work in recent years, I had to pull another of his books off the shelf during the outpouring over his death. I've already written about his substantial contributions to the Speculative Fiction canon, and today only want to discuss What Dreams May Come. It's an odd one to read as a farewell, being about a writer of novels and screen who dies and uneasily tours the afterlife. If the original audience felt he was writing about himself with all his sentimentality, abandoning much of his Horror roots, it reads even eerier this weekend.

I don't really remember the movie. Pretty sure this ain't in the book.
My copy contained an odd preface in which Matheson claimed only the characters were fictional. He'd studied so many near-death experiences, particularly those following suicide attempts, that he was convinced his vision of an afterlife was as accurate as it could get. Quite the claim from the guy who tried to make vampires plausible in I Am Legend. I largely tried to put it out of my mind as I consumed the book. It's a funky artist's statement to put in front of something otherwise so infinitely interpretable.

Whatever else I can say for What Dreams May Come, I never stopped wanting to read it. When I woke up Saturday morning, and my second thought was to read another chapter. That's an engagement very few books get, especially ones with so little plot. It's a simple novel, half a tour of a new-age Heaven ala Dante's Divine Comedy, and half a rescue mission into the incoherence of Hell.
Chris and Ann love each other so dearly that even their children wonder about it. They're those soul mates we unlikely daters are always hearing about, a resilient and needy couple up until Chris is killed in a car accident. He discovers Heaven and is given a tour by a kindred spirit, one part guardian angel, one part Virgil to his Dante, learning how it's adapted and been segregated to bring to peace to so many different kinds of people. All along there are these levels he doesn't hear about, and dreads. But more he dreads the absence of Ann; he cannot let her go, even for the few years they'll be apart before her natural life ends.

Ann is torn apart by Chris's death, and after a nervous breakdown, takes her own life. Self-harm on the level of suicide is one of those few things this new-age Heaven penalizes, the law casting Ann into Hell. Chris would rather risk eternity there than let her suffer while he exists in bliss. It's a heck of a mid-book hook.

What principally drew me into the first half was its accentuation of compassion. Much of the many heavens are segregated based on what people need to be at peace, depending on whether they feel strongest for the arts, or for socialization, for city-life or privacy. There is even a degree of racial segregation for bigots who have not come to terms. It's a curious, even troublingly unjudgmental afterlife that stayed interesting for every vignette explaining a new area or rule.

It's unrest and violence towards the self that sends one to Hell or Purgatory, where you're forced to digest and do your time. One's own psychology confines one there. This, Matheson writes, is not punishment, but "the law." That's the really troubling part, because he never goes into why it's "the law" – it appears arbitrary for a world that explains everything else. It also smells like a punishment, even if it's called something else. Why some of the dead must suffer while the majority experience endless self-discovery is something I was never satisfied with. It's tricky doing a tiered afterlife with nothing bigger than humans involved.

The second half will drag for many readers because most of it is Chris arguing with a tormented and maddened Ann. The longer he is in Hell, the less divine he is, losing context and perspective while struggling to remind a senile woman of who she really is, and that her life has ended. It's torturous and incredibly bold of Matheson to write such a long argument, never letting go, never taking a narrative easy-out. It lacks the depth and range of many real-life arguments that span so long, but is a damned earnest try that most writers can't pull off this well. It's worth reading alone for the multi-page monologue in which, desperate and losing his own mind, Chris thanks Ann for everything he meant to him, from clean underwear and hot meals to believing in his writing and never ceasing to pursue her own passions. It is as though a man empties his mind of everything he could possibly appreciate about another person. Again, guts to write.

And so it's funny that I say What Dreams May Come was a breezy read. But it has that Matheson style, where every scene has its purpose and commits deeply, almost to the point of losing sight of the plot thread. There's so much explicit world-building, but his afterlife is so much about warmth that it was a pleasure. If it's not a vision I share, so what? I'm grateful Matheson shared it.


  1. I haven't read the book, but I loved the movie. It was such an interesting concept. Although in the movie they insinuated that those who go to hell are there because subconsciously they believe they deserve to be there. It wasn't a punishment, but something they trapped themselves in.

  2. I had no idea there was a book behind that movie. I'm adding it to my wish list.

    1. You're the third person I've talked to this week who was unaware. Adaptations of his work definitely caught on bigger in the transmedia world. He gave us many stories. Hope you enjoy the novel when you get to it.

  3. Sounds like a great book. Will take your recommendation and give it a read.

  4. I saw that movie years ago. Like someone else had mentioned, I had no idea that it had been based from a book. The idea that someone's heaven or hell could be found in a painting is quite an idea. Makes me wonder if there's an underlying message about how artists are always bound to their work in some way, even if they're no longer creating.

  5. It was sort-of a weird experience for me reading the book after the movie because of the many, many differences. There was nothing of the heaven from the book in the movie because he spent the whole time isolated in his own little world. I loved the exploration of Heaven in the book, particularly one scene I remember very vividly involving an open audiotirum concert where visual art combined with music- that description stuck with me. And I thought the nightmares he had about Ann while in hell with her were kind-of brilliant- how they twisted real memories into horrors. And the ending was a fascinating prespective on reincarnation, challenging the notion of being born with a soul.
    In the end I agree, who cares if his vision doesn't match mne (not that I have one)- it was a fscinating read and a rich world he created.

  6. I really appreciate this review. I know I could never get through the book, much less watch the film, but this review lets me appreciate them without forcing myself to sit through them.


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