31 Days of Halloween: Richard Matheson, A Stir of Echoes

Richard Matheson: Shaken Not Stir of Echoes

I’ll admit, this is a labored metaphor that would be better served writing about Ian Fleming and martinis, but I work with what I got and I’ve yet to read any James Bond novels.

Matheson’s novel inspired the 1999 horror movie starring Kevin Bacon, and that is one of the few things the two have in common.  While inadvertently the merits of both might be compared here, it isn’t to choose one over the other. Bacon as the blue-collar ‘Tom’ who gets imbued with psychic abilities is as palpable and haunting character as Matheson’s protagonist, but with Matheson’s ‘Tom’ we get the first person perspective that plays into the horror as it unfolds, and that POV acts as a double-edged sword for the story.

A Stir of Echoes features Tom, a young executive at a local plant in Inglewood, California, with a young wife expecting their second child and the first child barely more than a toddler. At a neighborhood party one night, Tom’s brother-in-law steers the conversation to hypnotism, and through process of elimination, Tom is the party guest selected to be hypnotized.

Matheson does a fair job leading the reader into this event. We see that Tom and Paul have a needling relationship that almost threatens to dethrone the whole experiment, as the chain of dialogue reflects Tom’s jibing to unsettle the would-be hypnotist. As a criticism of this section of the novel, it feels like the jabs go on a bit too long before the hypnotism gets underway, and afterward the brother disappears from the novel (consider this against the movie, where, desperate to be relieved of the gift, Tom visits his hypnotist, his wife’s sister, who only compounds the problem).

The hypnotism session mirrors what we see in the movie. Tom enters a black theatre, draped in velvet, with a black screen and black walls. (When Illeana Douglas’ character tries to hypnotize him again to relieve him of the ability, and Bacon’s Tom gets to enter the theatre again, the audience gets another creepy moment when we see the ghostly figure sitting up on the front row – a visual we are denied when the psychiatrist, a missed opportunity on Matheson’s part to return to an already established character, performs the second session in the book).

As with the movie, Tom’s central preoccupation is with the phantom he sees in his house, but Matheson’s Tom experiences many more psychic encounters not related to the central murder mystery. He can read the thoughts of his neighbors and feels their inner stirrings. It is this first-person perspective and the descriptions of the manifestations of the psi phenomena on his physical being that really illustrate the horror of the book. We get Tom’s reaction and we get Tom’s disgust at what he feels when he talks to his lustful neighbor, when he feels the phantom in his house late at night, and when he deals with his landlords whom he believes responsible for the nightly visitant.

Matheson also eases the reader into the horror. We are given many interpretations as to what Tom could be experiencing that still seem fantastic, but hold to fringe scientific beliefs while shunning the straight-up supernatural. The psychiatrist holds the ability as a residual, primitive emotion that helped mankind survive prior to verbal communication, all while laughing off the thought of life after death. Some of this feels a bit slow, perhaps because the book itself was written and first published back in the 1950s; but a lot of the time, it feels like Matheson is afraid to let his reader go there. This is a matter of perspective, as Matheson is definitely thorough in covering all his bases before letting the reader in on the whole truth. (We saw something similar in his book Hell House, where the reader is dragged along with the most reluctant of the characters to believe till in the end their doubting nearly undoes them). I call this, post – X-Files – the Scully problem.

In such times, the reader might be screaming at the pages for the character to wake up. In A Stir of Echoes , I was fully prepared to get past the jargon and accept that he was psychic and seeing a spirit even as Tom was still debating his own sanity. (This is where the movie is superior, because Bacon’s Tom outwardly appears to his wife and friends to be slipping even as he questions his own sanity and still pursues this murder). So we are presented with a double-edged sword: The first-person POV helps to reveal the horror; the reader is given an engagement with a character who may not be on the same page, but shown too much, and the pacing could be affected. I think too we need, as readers, one character on our side. Matheson asked us to go along for this supernatural ride, and even his main character is unwilling to move at a regular progression to belief in this novel. While Tom does, eventually, to an extent, get there, that everyone else is reticent in this journey makes it all the more imperative that one character is either willing from the outset to accept what we as readers accept, or is willing to get there quicker than the others in the book. The brother nor the doctor count. Both are minor characters that appear to move the plot along and play no integral part in the development of the other characters. Neither is willing to accept all aspects of what we the reader believe, or Tom comes to believe: 1) That Tom is experiencing true psychic phenomenon; AND 2) Tom is interacting with a ghost.

But in Matheson’s hands, pacing isn’t a huge critique of the novel. While I wish Tom (or even some secondary character) could come to acceptance of belief sooner, the novel’s plot moves quickly and feels organic. Matheson does a great job of capturing the atmosphere (late at night, Tom awakening in terror to that feeling of a presence in his house). I finished the novel in two days. I’d be reading and look down to see I’d finished twenty pages, and had no interest in stopping.

Matheson wrote a number of works for which he’s famous in his eighty-seven years. While he penned some famous Twilight Zone episodes for Rod Serling, modern horror enthusiasts might know him for his other works. Hell House has been adapted, as has his more famous works, including I Am Legend , Button Button, The Shrinking Man , and What Dreams May Come.

A New Jersey native, it is doubtful that Matheson (who died in 2013) got to experience the craft beer resurgence that has swept the nation, and is featured in his home state by the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild. GSCBG states their goal is to foster the growth of the nation’s fastest-growing craft beer scene, and hopes through membership that they may educate and so support their local brewers. Visit their website here for more information.

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