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A note about the text. You have read my writing, Robert. This account may seem unlike it. The reason – I am limited by my transcriber. My thoughts must travel through her mind. I cannot surmount that. All the grains will not pass through the filter.

Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend has been a favourite of mine for years. Tautly written, but with a fantastical premise (the last man alive is besieged by an army of vampires) I read it in a single sitting. So I was looking forward to reading something else by Matheson.

The story begins with Robert Nielsen, the brother of the protagonist Chris, receiving a mysterious package from a distraught woman who shows up at his door one night. He discovers that it is a manuscript supposedly dictated to the anonymous woman, a psychic as it turns out, from beyond the grave by his dead brother. The account initially is flawed by misspellings and mistakes due to the woman’s poor vocabulary, patiently corrected by Chris.

It describes the moment of his death, his subsequent disorientation and eventual acceptance that he has died. He witnesses his own funeral, watches as his family struggle to cope with their loss. His son Ian has a growing interest in ESP and invites a psychic to attempt to contact his father. He is successful, even reading Chris’ lips for the benefit of his disbelieving and traumatized wife. However, Ann refuses to believe in the existence of an afterlife and Chris is forced to move on to a non-denominational Heaven.

“Heaven. Homeland. Harvest. Summerland,” he said. “Take your choice.”

This realm of existence is purely psychical, with Chris able to travel instantaneously, manifest objects at will and visit any perfect idyll he can imagine. Even his dead dog Katie is there waiting for him. His guide in the afterlife, Albert, explains that soon Ann will join him in ‘heaven’, as they are soul mates and destined to be together forever. First he must grow accustomed to the new rules of his existence and focus on improving his spiritual self. Despite the incredible sights of Heaven, Chris is unable to forget about Ann and continues to have visions of her experiencing pain back on Earth. Then Albert comes to him with the news that she has committed suicide and, because she refuses to believe in life after death, has been condemned to a private hell of her own making. Chris determinedly sets out to rescue his wife from this nightmarish torture, travelling through a series of hells that threaten to enmesh his own soul, trapping him forever.

Was this the place that Dante had confronted in his awful visions?

What Dreams May Come is in effect a reversal of Dante’s classic text, with Chris travelling in the opposite direction in search of his deceased ‘Beatrice’. However, Matheson’s book is frustratingly vague, with references to faddish theories of the paranormal, such as ‘etheric doubles’, auras and pan-psychism. God is spoken of, but all religions are described as imperfect attempts at describing life after death. In effect Chris’ Heaven resembles Plato’s description of a realm of ideal forms.

I also strongly disliked the stylistic choice of the story’s opening, with Chris harassing a psychic to write down his message to his brother for months on end apparently. It is made clear she is less educated than him, incapable of transcribing (at least initially until Matheson decides to abandon that stylistic quirk) her haunt’s thoughts into words. This idea of a Heaven composed of egotistical souls looking to use Earthbound humans as vassals for their thoughts and discoveries (apparently inspiration is the result of a divine ‘trickle down effect’, from the empyrean realm) is incredibly insulting. Chris, Albert and the other members of the host strike me as smug and condescending. Atheism is of course a passport to innumerable hells of suffering and pain, which is interesting. This version of the afterlife is non-denominational and egalitarian, except in the instance of non-believers. They are punished for their venality.

The book eventually is revealed to be an instruction manual of sorts, as to how we should comport ourselves to death. It’s an interesting theme, but one that I feel is rendered absurd by the descriptions of ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’.

I found this book to be at once frustrating and dull. A real shame.

“You are about to see one of Carole Lombard’s best films: Mr and Mrs Smith. It’s the only comedy Hitchcock ever directed.” The angel took a long drink of soda.

-“Who’s Hitchcock?”

“Have some popcorn”

– “No, thank you.”

In the fading light, the angel turned slowly to Ling. For several moments his eyes became enormous, pinwheeling fire everywhere.

“Have some popcorn.”

Well it has been a heavy couple of days here on the blog. Weighty themes, arresting imagery…..teddy bears altered in strange and disturbing ways (seriously, James Ellroy, get help!). So for today I chose Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love. I am a big fan of his whimsical present-day fables and will mention some more about his writing later, but first off – the plot!

Benjamin Gould is a young man in the prime of his life. He loves to cook, in fact his book shelves are filled with recipe books. His kitchen is his true home and he enjoys many different kinds of tea. He’s good with his hands and rather than sulking when things don’t go his way, he will often begin working on a new table, or chair. He’s also a young man who has already endured tragedy, sadness and loss – but he’s happy now, because he’s met the love of his life. The strangely named German Landis is a ray of sunshine, a beacon of warmth and kindness. She inspires him to be a better man, to leave the bitterness of his past behind. One day she suggests they adopt a dog from the pound, but not just any mutt. They should choose the dog that has languished there the longest. Ben enthusiastically agrees and rushes out. This is what life with German is like, spontaneity and good will as natural as breathing.

Unfortunately for Ben, he dies on the way home. Even more unfortunately for Ben, German, even the dog, Pilot, and the angels in Heaven who run the whole life and death game….he doesn’t notice he has died.  And from here, things  begin to get strange.

The Angel of Death assigns a ghost named Ling to follow Ben and discover why he has not passed on. Somewhere in his mind is the reason for his strange survival. Maybe somewhere buried deep in his past is the secret of immortality, making Ben very important indeed. Important enough to scare the Angel of Death himself near out of  his wits. For if humans can suddenly learn how to master their own mortality, maybe that changes everything. Maybe in this upside-down world angels and ghosts have reason to fear humans!

Jonathan Carroll has a gift for making the mundane seem magical. In a story about life and death, angels and monsters, he makes it seem so easy. This book was a breeze to read, a light confection that felt like an old Hollywood romance. Cinema is something of a passion for Carroll, as well as dogs, so I know he’s good people. It reminded me a little of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, where air force pilot David Niven refuses to die and accept his heavenly award, as he has just met the love of his life, played by Kim Hunter. In Carroll’s universe dogs and ghosts speak to one another amiably, the Angel of Death is obsessed with Carole Lombard movies and your past literally can catch up with you. Maybe even ball you out for not being more careful.

The very first scene of the novel is just delightful. Ling, Ben’s ghostly ‘caseworker’, is fretting over a sumptuous feast for German, whom she has also fallen in love with. As Pilot the bemused dog and her only friend looks on, she prepares a breakfast smorgasbord of salmon, eggs Benedict, scones, soufflé, even fine coffee. The woman of her dreams arrives in the apartment, sits down at the table and is completely oblivious to the phantom feast laid out before her. It’s a beautifully sustained sequence.

One of my favourite books is Carroll’s The Land of Laughs, his first published novel. It also deals with memory, loss and death. If you read it you may come away with a newfound interest for pit-bull terriers. Seriously the man loves dogs. Whenever I encounter a book of his on a shelf I snap it up. The Ghost in Love is a treat for anyone looking for a story filled with wonder and whimsy. Enjoy.

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