fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsA Stir of Echoes by Richard Matheson science fiction book reviewsA Stir of Echoes by Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson is an author who never seems to let me down. The first two novels that I read by the man, I Am Legend (1954) and The Shrinking Man (1956), are superb and highly original sci-fi creations, and both have been memorably filmed. (I seem to be in the distinct minority in preferring the 1964 U.S.-Italian coproduction The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price, over 1971’s The Omega Man, featuring Charlton Heston, although neither quite does justice to the I Am Legend original. The Incredible Shrinking Man, of course, filmed in 1957 with Matheson’s screenplay and starring Grant Williams, is one of the finest science fiction outings of the ‘50s.)

And then there was Hell House, a Matheson horror novel from 1971 that was one of the scariest books I have ever read; Matheson scripted the screenplay for 1973’s The Legend of Hell House and turned it into one of the scariest movies you could EVER hope to find. And I have yet to mention any number of gripping shorter pieces that I’d read by Matheson over the years; 1953’s “Slaughter House” is a particularly fine example, and almost a warm-up for Hell House. Given this faultless track record, I was thus particularly keen on reading Matheson’s first out-and-out supernatural thriller, A Stir of Echoes, especially after noticing a highly laudatory review of same in Newman & Jones’ excellent overview volume Horror: Another 100 Best Books. Originally released in 1958, when the New Jersey-born author was 32, his 5th novel has turned out to be, for this reader, still another winning creation.

In A Stir of Echoes, the reader encounters Tom Wallace, a 27-year-old aircraft-plant employee who lives in a SoCal suburb with his pregnant wife, Anne, and their young son. The Wallaces’ tranquil existence is given an upending one evening when Tom allows himself to be hypnotized by his brother-in-law at a neighbor’s house party. The hypnotism is a successful party treat, but Tom immediately begins to suffer after-effects. In the days to come, he develops some truly uncanny abilities. He is able to see into his female neighbor’s lustful, rutting mind; sense from afar when his wife has been injured; divine the criminal intentions in the babysitter’s unhinged noggin; tell the sex of his unborn child; anticipate the death of an in-law, a ghastly nearby train wreck, and a neighborhood shooting; and perform “automatic writing.” He also begins to develop psychometry (the ability to touch an object and learn things about its owner). But perhaps worst of all, Tom now begins to see, practically every night, the spectral image of a beseeching woman, seemingly coming from beyond the grave…

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsA Stir of Echoes is a simply written book, told in what Matheson has described in interviews as a “less is more” manner. It is absolutely unputdownable also, I might add; I zipped through this one in record time. The book is one of gradually escalating suspense, culminating with a very neat, double-twist ending and one sweet coda. The Wallaces make for a charming couple, and the reader is disturbed to see how Tom’s newly acquired abilities go far in tearing their marriage apart. Matheson also excels in rendering expertly written, realistic dialogue — I’ve rarely read better — and this emphasis on realism makes the more supernatural elements go down all the easier. Writing of the book in the Jones & Newman volume, author Ed Gorman tells us that because Tom is so credible a character, “the reader accepts without question the only unrealistic elements of the book — the paranormal scenes.” Very true. But Matheson also adds other hyperrealistic touches to make us buy into the central conceit. The Lighthouse jazz club in Hermosa Beach where the Wallaces go on date night… it’s been there since 1949, and exists to this day. The Hawthorne street in Inglewood, near where the Wallaces live… yes, it’s there, as well. And to put the icing on the already realistic cake, Matheson gives us a fairly detailed and seemingly plausible explanation for Tom’s newfound abilities, courtesy of family friend and psychiatrist Alan Porter. (The book takes its title, incidentally, not only from the Archibald MacLeish poem “Chambers of Imagery,” with its “stir of echoes down the creaking floor,” but also from Porter’s statement regarding humankind’s repressed paranormal talents, which, he believes, were stronger in primitive man: “I believe they still exist in us, faint echoes of their former vitality.”)

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsMatheson’s book contains any number of genuinely eerie sequences (any scene with that ghostly woman is of course a standout), and the author’s quiet way of describing them turns out to be a highly effective one. Much like Robert Neville in I Am Legend and Scott Carey in The Shrinking Man, Tom is an ordinary man (as his name might suggest) desperately trying to understand and carry on in a set of bizarre circumstances far beyond the range of ordinary human comprehension. Tom’s situation is a bit more enviable than the others’ in that he is able to enlist his wife for support longer than Neville and Carey could, but perhaps Tom, family man that he is, also has more to worry about, as well. The reader likes Tom — we admire the wonderful, loving rapport he has with both Anne and his young son — and hopes that he will be able to see his way through, a proposition that becomes increasingly unlikely as the novel proceeds.

Like those other Matheson titles previously referenced, A Stir of Echoes also received the big-screen treatment; in 1999, it was released with Kevin Bacon starring as Tom. I have not seen the film (yet), but hear that it is a reasonably faithful adaptation (not by Matheson this time, but rather by director David Koepp), although it moves the story’s setting to Chicago, ups the age of Tom’s young son, and inexplicably changes Tom’s name to Tom Witzky. (Why do screenwriters DO that?!?!) Bacon is not who I would have visualized in the lead, but as good an actor as he is, I’m sure he does a fair job. Still, it’s hard to imagine the film being as compelling and irresistible as Matheson’s original. “The book is as vital and fresh as it was when it first appeared nearly half a century ago,” Gorman goes on to write, and that is most assuredly the case. Richard Matheson — who, sadly, left us in 2013 at age 87 — is now a very solid 4 for 4 with this reader. And I have a feeling that after I read my next Matheson book, 1978’s afterlife fantasy What Dreams May Come, that tally will be an even more impressive 5 for 5…

A Stir of Echoes — (1958) Publisher: Tom Wallace lived an ordinary life, until a chance event awakened psychic abilities he never knew he possessed. Now he’s hearing the private thoughts of the people around him — and learning shocking secrets he never wanted to know. But as Tom’s existence becomes a waking nightmare, even greater jolts are in store as he becomes the unwilling recipient of a compelling message from beyond the grave! This eerie ghost story, by award-winning author of Hell House and I Am Legend, inspired the acclaimed 1999 film starring Kevin Bacon.


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....