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Richard Matheson – What Dreams May Come

Title: What Dreams May Come
Author: Richard Matheson

Disclaimer: This review is written with 90% rage, 10% frustration and 0% balanced and carefully thought-out opinions. If you’re looking for a balanced review of What Dreams May Come, look elsewhere.

Recently, I’ve been trying to expand my reading with new authors rather than only reading ones I’m already familiar with or that have been recommended by friends with reliable preferences. Some of these have been successful (Paulo Bacigalupi), others not so much (Greg Bear, A.E. van Vogt). Still, after reading I Am Legend and being deeply impressed by the brutish and effective writing style, I thought that I’d give another of Richard Matheson’s novels a try, namely What Dreams May Come.

To my horror, the difference between these two books is the most significant I’ve ever encountered. I Am Legend was an entertaining and well-composed action novel with some deeper touches, What Dreams May Come is pure garbage. The only reason I finished the book was because I wanted to make sure that it was truly as horrible as it seemed after the first half. Also, since this is my first zero-snail rating ever, I wanted to make sure that there really wasn’t anything worthwhile in the entire novel.

The story in itself might look quite interesting at first glance: Chris, the main character and narrator, dies in a traffic accident, but contrary to his beliefs, there is an afterlife. After slowly adjusting to his new environment after some initial troubles with letting go of his beloved wife, who is still alive, he has to save her from the depths of hell. Why? In her grief, she committed suicide, which apparently is the greatest sin of all. This plot might have been interesting if let’s say Neil Gaiman had written it, because he might actually have done something original. Instead, Matheson strives to add as much spiritual nonsense as possible and somehow thinks that it should be relevant or even interesting.

The first half of the book is arguably the worst (there is, after all, many levels in hell) . After the accident, it takes Chris roughly half the book to get adjusted to his new situation. During all this time, the only thing that happens in the novel is him walking (or teleporting or whatever) around in paradise, saying “oh” and “ah” whenever something “cool” is explained to him. Which happens to be all the time.

Examples of “cool” things are:

  • You don’t need to eat in heaven
  • You don’t have to work in heaven but people do anyway
  • You can move by thought
  • You can communicate using telepathy
  • Heaven is very much the result of your own imagination (which is true for those in hell as well, who are there because they can’t escape their own outlook on the world and/or themselves).

If you think this is something a five-year-old with mediocre imagination could come up with, you would be right. I can’t even imagine what the point with all this is, because if it’s meant to impress or be fantastic, somebody needs to do a reality check, so to speak. This is just a collection of stereotypical spiritual nonsense rolled up into something that for some reason is called a novel. I don’t know who said that nobody wants to read the part when they explore heaven in Dante’s Divina Comedia, because all the interesting things happen in hell, but my utter distaste with the first part of this novel is based on the same idea. A story with boring descriptions and no plot is a bad idea.

In the second half, things start moving a little bit and it consists of Chris trying to rescue his princess from the hell she has created for herself. Wait a second, did someone just say that people created their own heavens and hells? Oh, I forgot to mention that there still seems to be arbitrary and yet absolute rules (and perhaps an implied ruler), stating that suicide, for whatever reason, is utterly condemnable and sentences the deceased to the worst of hells. His descent into hell is the only part of the novel which isn’t complete trash, but on the other hand, it’s also quite short.

Most of the second half of the novel is spent trying to convince his wife that she is dead and that he is dead to and that if she just believes him they can live on forever. Here, I foresaw a sugar sweet ending where they lived on happily ever after in paradise, so when Matheson suddenly makes it clear that she can’t enter heaven for some reason, I actually thought he and his book might be saved by some miraculous divine intervention. But no, instead, they are both going to be reincarnated, and since they are soul mates (a technical term, mind you, it doesn’t mean that they are good friends), they will find each other again in their next lives on Earth (in India, as it happens) and eventually they will live on happily ever after, or, as Matheson puts it:

There we will, I pray, remain and learn and grow until the time when we will rise together to the ultimate heights, changing in appearance but never in devotion, sharing the transcendent glory of our love through all eternity.

Now that I feel that the tsunami of rage is retreating, perhaps I should try some rational arguments. If Matheson had written an epic love story, modelled on Dante’s Divina Comedia with some New Age influences, that would have been fine. I probably wouldn’t have liked the book, but passages as the one I quoted above are sweet and I’m sure lots of people would appreciate a book filled with such nonsense. If he would have written a book about the afterlife and reincarnation, and labelled it as such (i.e. not as a novel), that would have been okay, too. The really serious problem here is that he tries to do both at the same time. It’s not possible to have a sentence quoted above and then follow it up with several pages of relatively technical discussions on how reincarnation works! This novel simply can’t decide if it’s a love epic or a dissection of the various functions of heaven and hell.

Even worse, although I hope this is a joke, is that the author claims that everything in the novel, except for the characters, is based on research and science, and that the reader is meant to check things up. What? Is he completely insane? The only part of this novel that might be based on anything vaguely resembling research is the characters, everything else is just pure fantasy (I like vivid imagination, but it shouldn’t be confused with science).

The author says that this is his most important book because it was able to console people and lessen their fear of death. That’s very cute, but I think that being comforted by this book is more like putting on a blindfold when falling from an airplane and hoping that it will somehow save you. Furthermore, the author urges us to reevaluate our lives, because since everything is true in this novel, we all should fear what will happen to us in the afterlife. I don’t mind religious themes in books (I like C.S. Lewis a lot, for instance), but if you want to write propaganda, please do it well.

If I come to a personal hell after I die, it will consist of sitting down and being forced to read this novel over and over, but since the only thing in my life I seriously regret so far is reading the novel in the first place, I will be caught in an endless, vicious circle and will be tormented to the end of time. Fortunately for me, the ideas in this novel, along with the story and the presentation, is complete garbage and I consider it very unlikely that they will add more than a momentary lapse of the ability to write rational reviews. I will never dare to watch the movie, but to keep sane I hope it was a lot better (or at least a lot shorter) than the novel. Don’t read What Dreams May Come, even if your life depends on it.

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  1. Martin Ackerfors’s avatar

    Jag är imponerad över att du så helhjärtat orkar såga den. :)


    1. Olle Linge’s avatar

      Vrede, inget annat, bara vrede. Och lite korrläsning i efterhand.