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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.