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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.
‘It’s not as if I’d expect you to tell me the truth, dear boy. My readers don’t give a damn about the truth. They just want a good story with someone they can cheer for. We could even make you look good.’ He glanced at Pyke and shrugged. ‘Or bad, if you wanted to be bad. Good or bad. Just not both at the same time. It confuses people. They can’t work out whether to shout for the man or rail against him.’
Anti-heroes and noir fiction detectives go hand in hand. That moral equator gets crossed so many times, the reader is left wondering if the book’s protagonist is possessing of any morality at all. The best kinds of anti-heroes, to my mind at least, are those who possess a sort of bruised romanticism. Once they believed in a better future, but the present has consistently disabused them of that notion. Death-dealing ‘antiheroes’, such as say John Rambo, launch themselves across that moral line without a second thought. For them killing is something that barely needs to be rationalized as a ‘necessary evil’.
It is obvious that the different forms of anti-hero makes for attractive protagonists in any genre, hence Elric, or Thomas Covenant in fantasy and the Stainless Steel Rat in science fiction. In The Last Days of Newgate, author Andrew Pepper suggests a very early progenitor of the trope – Machiavelli’s classic political satire The Prince. For the purposes of this novel, however, he meets the reader halfway, introducing us to a typical Private Eye type named Pyke, who happens to live in 1820’s London.
Of course Pyke is not known as a private detective in this era. Instead he plies his trade as a thief-taker working for the Bow Street Runners. He also enjoys a small sideline in selling on stolen goods that he was unable to secure a reward for recovering. In fact the very first page of this book has him being attacked by a criminal associate, an Irishman known as Michael Flynn in a double-cross. As this is sectarian London, with Daniel O’Connell’s calls for Catholic emancipation inspiring riots in the streets between Protestants and Irish immigrants. Merely knowing Michael Flynn is enough for Pyke to be suspected of unseemly behavior, but the captured criminal is not helping for confessing everything about his partner’s role in his fence operation.
It is a time of great change in London. In addition to the proposal to give rights to Catholics under British law, the politicians are also debating the creation of a Metropolitan police force. This would of course render the Bow Street Runners null and void. In what seems like his last job, an ordinary investigation lands Pyke in the middle of a gruesome murder. The victims are initially identified as a Protestant couple, which causes further riots within the city. Pyke realizes that a patsy suspect will be accused in order to sate the anger of a bloodthirsty public. In his pursuit of the truth, he has to journey from London to Belfast and back, not to mention the little matter of a jail break.
This book captures the pre-Victorian era with an impressive degree of period detail and mixes in a plot strongly reminiscent of Mike Hammer. Occasionally characters quote Machiavelli to let us know this is not low-brow material, but by the same token it is great fun to see Pepper ducking and weaving through the associations.
Most impressive is how the sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants is mapped onto the familiar themes of race hatred from American detective fiction. By doing so Pepper cleverly establishes the extent of the conflict between the two religions, with the British Home Secretary at one point casually stating ‘I believe the Irish race to be an inferior one’.
This is also a book about the gulf between classes. Pyke’s ability to mingle with land owning aristocrats as well as pub brawlers marks him out as an anomaly. He enjoys partaking of laudanum and has little respect for women – but holds himself to an unusual moral code, despite being informed by his study of Machiavelli. In that he regards himself as superior to the men who rule Britain with an uncaring pragmatism, as well as the folk of his childhood whom he can barely relate to anymore.
This book is fascinating in its mixture of genres and informed by an incisive approach to the historical period.