(1958/2013) Richard Matheson, Tor, £7.99, pbk, 211pp, ISBN 978-1-447-24239-0
This is a small novel from the US science fiction master Richard Matheson and originally published in 1958. It sees family man Tom Wallace's life upturned following a hypnosis session at a party. An innocent suggestion when coming out of the trance when he was told, 'your mind is free.' Afterwards he starts seeing things including a strange lady in their front room. It soon becomes apparent that some sort of supernatural ability has been unleashed and it is one that Tom is not sure he wants. Events slowly spin out of control with devastating effects on his friends and neighbours…
Now if you have not heard of Richard Matheson then you are in for a treat because not only is he the author of a number of fine novels but some of these were turned into films (whom he also scripted), made-for-TV films and television episodes, and he left behind him a remarkable body of work when he died in 2013. He is perhaps most famous for The Shrinking Man (1956) that became The Incredible Shrinking Man film (1957) he scripted (which in turn won a Hugo Award), and I am Legend (1954). If this is not enough, then perhaps you will be impressed by the lines of praise given to Matheson in the book's outside cover from the likes of Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Brian Lumley and Dean Koontz.
Matheson is a bit of a genius. He writes novels with a simple starting premise: what would happen if someone started to shrink inexorably, or how could one conceive of plausible vampires and what would be the consequence of such a scenario. In A Stir of Echoes it is what would be the consequence to an individual of releasing some supernatural sensory potential. Added to this is that towards the end the book enters thriller territory, but enough of that: go read it.
It has to be said that A Stir of Echoes is a slow-burn novel. The change from normality to the book's dramatic conclusion takes place gradually and evenly; probably a little too slowly compared to modern fantasy horrors but there is no harm in that and it is part of the book's charm. Yes, it is a fantasy horror, but more fantasy and light on the horror: there are no blood and guts from malevolent spirits. Yes it is short, but that too is part of the book's charm and a welcome change from the modern trend to ramp up the word count. The only worrying thing about it is that there is more than a hint of misogyny present but then this is perhaps more a reflection of the book being written well over half a century ago, and even so the attitudes presented are far from unknown in developed nations today.
The film has more recently (1999) been made into a film directed by David Koepp and starring Kevin Bacon, Zachary David Cope and Kathryn Erbe. And here is the firm advice: read the book first! The film is more modern, the changes that there are from the book are either neutral or arguably better. Here's the thing, the book deserves your enjoyment and if you are into fantastical horror you will enjoy it. Having said that, the film is also good to the extent that it overshadows and might detract from your enjoyment of the book. Just as you would not ruin your appetite and taste buds by having your favourite dessert before your main course, so do not mar the pleasure that this book can give you. The other thing you need to know about the film is that it is arguably more scarier than the book, but maybe that is me and the soft, behind-the-sofa, fragile personality of mine.
The book's value – apart from it being a well-written and conceived story – is that it comes from a genre master. Those of today's readers of SF/F/H who really want to get to grips with the genre will want to be aware of speculative fiction's roots. Here, there is no doubt that Richard Matheson has left his mark on the genre: an influence that resonates through to many of today's writers (whether they know it or not). In short, if you like fantasy cum light horror then this is a title you ought to get. This reprint is most welcome.
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