Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Echoes Excels at Creeping Dread

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a woman cursed with the gift of foretelling the future. Yes, the awkward verbiage is intentional, because despite possessing an ability that could turn heads of state, stock market traders and lovelorn suitors greener than a golf course with envy, Cassandra couldn't get anyone to believe her predictions. No matter how accurate, her insights were destined to be ignored, brushed off, scoffed at. One can imagine her mounting sense of alienation, terror and -- ultimately -- despair. That's the mood permeating the supernatural horror of Richard Matheson's A Stir of Echoes.

Tom Wallace knew his neighbor Elise's party would be dull. Everyone did. It was one of life's givens, a universal constant. So when his brother-in-law offered to entertain them all with a parlor trick, a little bit of hypnosis to liven up the evening, Tom figured what the heck, he was game. Under the power of suggestion, he let them run a lighter over his exposed legs and convince him he was twelve years old again. Everyone hooted and howled with laughter, as did Tom himself once he'd come to his senses. Only he isn't laughing now. He has begun to get snatches of -- of what? Visions? Hallucinations? Waking fever dreams? He doesn't know what to call them, but somehow he understands that Elise harbors lascivious designs on him, realizes the exact moment his wife gets knocked unconscious by a falling can of tomatoes, comprehends that his fireplace poker is charged with death itself. These sensations aren't fading with time. No, they're getting stronger.

You don't have to look hard to find Echoes' faults. Matheson's rough-hewn style means he comes across less as a wordsmith than a day laborer in language. Suburban California has changed so much since the book's original publication (1958) that it often feels hopelessly dated. The ending is about as easy to poke holes in as wet tissue paper. Yet Matheson so thoroughly nails Tom's creeping dread that it hardly matters. Here is a man with an ability he doesn't want and didn't ask for, an ability over which he has no conscious control, an ability that estranges him from his family and reveals his friends as rapacious monsters driven by blind need, and he has no way to stop it. A novel can succeed if it does one thing well. Echoes excels at stirring the gooseflesh on the back of your neck.

(Picture: CC 2007 by

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