Thursday, 5 September 2013

'A Stir of Echoes' - Richard Matheson (Tor UK)

I'm always looking out for more books by Richard Matheson after having had a great time reading 'I am Legend' and 'The Shrinking Man' (as well as several short stories and watching 'Duel' again). Matheson is just a master of horror, it's that simple.

It was Niall Alexander's excellent 'British Genre Fiction Focus' feature (over at that pointed me in the direction of Tor UK's reissue of 'A Stir of Echoes' and I'm afraid that I've been incredibly unsocial whilst reading it over the last few days. Although I would personally rank 'A Stir of Echoes' just below 'I am Legend' and 'The Shrinking Man' (for reasons that I will go into in a bit) it's still a compelling read and another example of Matheson making the whole art of writing chilling horror look incredibly easy. Here's the blurb...

Madness is only a step away . . . Tom Wallace is happy with his suburban lot. Until an evening of casual entertainment turns reality into nightmare. Tom sees himself as a pragmatist, and when his brother-in-law challenges him to undergo hypnotism, he obliges to prove a point. So no one is more surprised that Tom when it works. But this cheap parlour trick unlocked something that now threatens his sanity, way of life and marriage. Suddenly he can sense his neighbours’ darkest desires, and some are dark indeed. When shadows from the past and glimpses of the future are revealed to him, Tom tries to deny what’s happening. But as his existence becomes increasingly unbearable, the biggest revelation of all awaits -- a message from beyond the grave.

While I wouldn't say that I have read extensively in horror, I've read a fair bit and I've yet to come across another writer who can capture that sense of ordinary life being dislocated, by the unexplainable, as well as Matheson does. I don't know if he overplays the mundanity of suburban life or if it really is that dull. Whatever it is, the sudden contrast thrown up by the supernatural (here, Tom Wallace's sudden ability to tell what people are thinking) really jars and unsettles the reader as much as the characters themselves.

It's very cleverly done although I couldn't help feeling that the focus was a little too narrow in terms of what happens to Wallace. You get to see how this power affects his relationships with his neighbours and, to be fair, that is worth the price of entry on its own. Everyone has a dark side and not only are there some creepy surprises (Elsie in particular, those moments made me squirm, and the ghost talking through Wallace's son... actually, all of it creeped me out) but it all feeds into a murder mystery from beyond the grave that has the capacity to shock you just when you think that you have it all figured out. I skipped to the last few pages, early in, and the book still managed to spring a big surprise when I read it through properly. And what an ending... Matheson shows us that while the supernatural can be scary, the real fear lies in having your family held at gunpoint by a mad person. Some seriously scary and powerful moments here.

I couldn't help but think though, more of a focus on Wallace's wider interactions (in the workplace and so on) would have lent more weight to his fight against the stress caused by the situation. Not that the poor guy didn't have enough on his plate already (because he really does) but I'd say that anything which tightens the screw further has to be a good thing, right? It would have also made things a little more rounded, a concept this intriguing deserves more exploration although I do get you can only do so much exploring in a book that is only two hundred and eleven pages long...

I couldn't put 'A Stir of Echoes' down though and, at the end of the day, that's what really counts. It's a genuinely creepy read that had me rooting for Wallace and now has me wondering what is really going on in my neighbours' heads...

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