What Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson science fiction book reviewsWhat Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson

What Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson science fiction book reviewsIt’s the big question; one that has been weighing on mankind for millennia now … namely, what happens to us when we buy the farm? You know … croak, kick the bucket, breathe one’s last, check out, cash in one’s chips, bite the dust, ride into the sunset, pass on, pass away, give up the ghost, meet one’s maker, pass over, perish … in a word, die. It’s a conundrum that many people have wondered about once or twice – or 10,000 times – during their stay here on Earth; perhaps the thought has even occurred to you at some point. And it’s one that was apparently top of mind for author Richard Matheson when he set about writing his 10th novel, What Dreams May Come. Matheson, of course, had already enjoyed over 25 years of being a writer of well-respected fantasy, sci-fi and horror fare; this reader had previously been wowed by such Matheson novels as I Am Legend (1954), The Shrinking Man (1956), A Stir of Echoes (1958) and Hell House (1971), as well as by the short-story collections The Shores of Space (1957) and The Best of Richard Matheson (2017). But by the late ‘70s, it seems, the author, desirous of doing something other than his typical genre fare, and after a prodigious amount of research, set about tackling the big question.

What Dreams May Come was originally released in September 1978 as an $8.95 Putnam hardcover. Any number of editions would follow, especially after the book’s big-screen adaptation in 1998. The edition that I was fortunate enough to nab is the trade-size paperback from Tor from 2004; the 2008 edition from Tor would seem to be the book’s most recent incarnation (or, given the book’s subject matter, perhaps I should say “reincarnation”). The bottom line is that it should pose no great difficulty for prospective readers to find today, and a fortunate happenstance that is, too, as the book has just revealed itself to me to be both finely written (no great surprise there, considering Matheson’s previous achievements) and profoundly moving (a fact that just might take many of his fans by surprise, indeed).

Matheson’s book takes the form of a manuscript that has been “dictated” by the deceased Chris Nielsen, over the course of six months, to a female clairvoyant, who then delivers the finished document to Chris’ older brother, Robert. As we soon learn, Chris, a (more than) happily married man with two sons and two daughters, had been tragically killed in a car accident while driving home one night. The former screenwriter had awakened in his hospital bed and watched the doctors’ attempts to save his life; watched those attempts, that is, from a remove, while hovering above his bed! He’d felt the tearing of nerve ends and had seen a silver umbilical cord of sorts pull away from his head. Chris, it seems, was in the process of dying, although he’d persisted in thinking that his plight was merely a dream. Witnessing subsequent events through a misty haze, Chris had later attended his own funeral service, witnessed his family attempting to contact him via a séance, and sank beneath the ground to verify the existence of his own corpse lying in its coffin. All the while, a shadowy figure had beseeched him to let go, to leave the bonds of Earthly existence and move on. But Chris had wandered through this horrible limbo state for an unknowable length of time, reluctant to bid farewell to his kids and especially to his beloved wife Anne. But finally, the dreariness of purgatory had become too much for him, and he had indeed let himself go…

And so, in the second section of this wondrous account, Chris had found himself in another realm; one that is as close to the popular conception of Heaven as one might imagine. He realized soon enough that that shadowy figure had been none other than his dear departed cousin Albert, who would soon be his guide and protector in this domain called Summerland. Albert had shown him some of the sights of this paradisical afterlife, and had taught him how to converse using his mind alone, as well as create objects mentally. Chris had been shown Summerland’s remarkable central city by a female guide, Leona, and been reunited with old relatives as well as his beloved dog Katie. All would have been well, if only he hadn’t missed Anne so very much. A visit to the city’s Office of Records had revealed, however, that Anne would not be making her own transition to the afterlife for another 24 years. With reluctant good grace, Chris had resigned himself to spending those two dozen years in putting together the great novel he’d always hoped to write, as well as in mentally constructing the perfect abode for himself and his spouse. But then, disaster had struck again.

Anne, despondent over the loss of her husband, had committed suicide with sleeping pills, and had thus been relegated to a horrible “lower realm” until her ordained span of years would have elapsed; in other words, 24 years in Hell! Chris had been desperate to join her there and try to do something, anything, to alleviate her suffering. And so, in the book’s harrowing third section, with Albert as his very reluctant guide, he had descended into that horrible region, witnessing many terrors along the way. And when he had somehow found his way to Anne – a complete disbeliever in the afterlife, who could not even recognize Chris in this realm – his problems, it seemed, were only just beginning…

Now, lest you be thinking that What Dreams May Come merely sounds like a reasonably entertaining fantasy creation from this renowned writer, please know that in his introduction to the book – the first introduction, Matheson says, that he had ever felt necessary – it is mentioned that only the central characters, and their relationships, are fictional; everything else “is derived exclusively from research.” And at the rear of the novel, Matheson gives us the list of 90 books that he’d read while investigating the subjects of survival after death, reincarnation, communicating with the so-called dead, etc. It is a very impressive gathering of corroborative scholarship that cannot help but give Matheson’s novel a patina of credibility. Will the novel change your way of thinking about the afterlife, as it reportedly has done for so many other readers? Perhaps. Matheson has been quoted as saying that the greatest compliment he ever received about the book was readers telling him that it had allayed their fear of dying. And while this reader is still on the fence about the matter of survival after death, and probably always will be, I must admit that Matheson’s book does go far in explaining how things operate after we check out. Summerland, as well as the “lower depths,” are described to a fare-thee-well; their geographies, such as they are, what the residents do there, and what comes … afterward. Also given credible explanations are the wonderfully creative minds here on Earth, child prodigies, the sinister trap that is suicide, and the precise mechanics of reincarnation. It is all extremely fascinating stuff, compellingly narrated by Chris Nielsen, an amazed witness to it all.

What Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson science fiction book reviewsMatheson’s book, typical for him, is simply but beautifully written, with realistically rendered dialogue and any number of moving scenes. Among them: Chris, in his dreamlike purgatory, witnessing his own funeral, séance, and moldering corpse; the letter that Chris’ daughter, Marie, writes to a friend, allowing us to see what a terrific father she had, and the special relationship Chris enjoyed with Anne; the lengthy exploration of Summerland; the sight of Chris swimming in a Summerland lake, amazed at his new ability to breathe underwater; the frightening journey through Hell; and the wonderful sequence in which Chris finds Anne in the afterlife. That last scene, incidentally, is particularly well done. Anne, living in Hell inside of a shabby, tarantula-infested parody of her old home, and in a dazed state of denial about being dead and in the afterlife, cannot be convinced by Chris about the true state of affairs. Finally, Chris gives up, and in an extraordinarily moving, five-page section, tells Anne all the many things that he is thankful for since he met her. I cannot imagine any reader not getting a tad misty eyed after reading this bravura sequence!

What Dreams May Come gives us any number of lines that tempt one to deface the book itself by taking a highlighter to them. Thus, we’re told that “Death is merely a continuation at another level,” and, regarding the purgatory state, “What condemnation could possibly be more harsh than one’s own when self-pretense is no longer possible?” Matheson takes the opportunity to make some scathing comments on religious fanatics (“the most backward souls of all”), segregationists (“Anyone who couldn’t understand that what’s important is a man’s soul, not the color of his skin, would never be content here,” Leona tells Chris about Summerland), and the snobbish elite (“They are living a delusion of group superiority which words cannot affect”).

Curiously, despite Matheson’s assertion that he wished to write something other than a horror story in this, his 10th novel, his depictions of Hell just might comprise some of the most harrowing passages he’s ever committed to paper. I’ll leave it to you to discover the manifold bits of unpleasantness that Chris and Albert encounter there. Let’s just say that they’re every bit as horrible as the “vampires” that Robert Neville dealt with in I Am Legend, the gargantuan terrors faced by Scott Carey in The Shrinking Man, the clairvoyant horrors suffered by Tom Wallace in A Stir of Echoes, and the supernatural manifestations encountered by the researchers in Hell House, and leave it at that! Truly, Hell has never seemed so, well, so hellacious.

For the rest of it, What Dreams May Come features the gimmick of having all its chapter titles being the same as the last few words in the chapters themselves; a gimmick that surprisingly works very well. From what I hear, the 1998 filmization, starring Robin Williams (who I just cannot picture as Chris Nielsen), Annabella Sciorra, and Cuba Gooding, Jr., made substantial alterations to the basic story line, about which Matheson (whose own screenplay had been rejected) had nothing good to say. I have not seen the film, but cannot imagine it possibly topping Matheson’s reasonably convincing/assuredly moving original. His novel is ultimately very touching and even potentially life changing; in that regard, it may be compared to another book that I recently experienced, Algernon Blackwood’s The Promise of Air (1918). And oh … bonus points for the incorporation of the word “grumous.” That was a new one on me!

I can find little to fault in Matheson’s fairly extraordinary piece of work here. Oh, there are one or two instances of faulty grammar, but probably nothing that a person who’s not a proofreader or copy editor (yeah, that’s me!) would ever notice. And yes, it is a bit odd that Chris was 47 when he died, while Robert is revealed to be a full 16 years older, but hey, I suppose that’s entirely possible, right? Perhaps worst of all, though, is the moment when Anne, stuck in her self-made Hell, asks Chris “How did you know my name?” The only problem is … Chris had never said it. He’d mentioned Ginger’s (the dog’s) name, but not Anne’s. But these are very minor matters. What Dreams May Come remains a complete success; a book that will surely entertain and startle while providing abundant food for thought, even if you are not wholly sold on the idea of the afterlife by the time you turn that final page. As for me, I’m still going to try to push back my own checkout time for as long as possible. Matheson’s assertions may be right and they may be wrong. As usual, I can wait to find out…

Published in 1978. What happens to us after we die? Chris Nielsen had no idea, until an unexpected accident cut his life short, separating him abruptly from his beloved wife, Annie. Now Chris must discover the true nature of life after death. But even Heaven is not complete without Annie, and when tragedy threatens to divide them forever, Chris risks his very soul to save Annie from an eternity of despair. Can love bring together what Heaven and Hell have torn asunder?


  • 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....