Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A paranormal romance

I recently discussed my love of the Richard Matheson novel What Dreams May Come. Now I'm going to talk about another Matheson novel, Somewhere in Time (originally titled Bid Time Return but later changed to fit the movie). I cannot exactly recommend this novel. In fact, I thought the 1980 film version improved on it considerably. Matheson, however, considers this book and What Dreams May Come to be his two greatest novels. He may even have conceived them as one book. The similarities between the two are striking. The protagonists in both books are blond 6'2" screenwriters who live in Hidden Hills, California and love classical music. They each have a brother named Robert who acquires the protagonist's memoirs but cannot bring himself to accept the otherworldly events described in them. Both books are paranormal love stories, but they emphasize different phenomena.

In Somewhere in Time, a 30-something man named Richard Collier has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and has decided, upon a coin flip, to spend his last days hanging around the Hotel del Coronado, a famous California hotel. There he grows obsessed with the photograph of a nineteenth-century stage actress, Elise McKenna, who once performed there. Through research, he learns that she never married, that she had an overprotective manager, and that she may have had a brief affair with a mysterious man while staying at the hotel. The more Richard learns, the more convinced he becomes that it is his destiny to travel back in time and become that mysterious man.

This is an interesting setup. But the execution is shaky. I barely could get through the first fifty pages, which consist of Richard's rambling journal entries as nothing happens. I realize that Matheson was attempting realism, but I don't consider that a good excuse. A novel must involve the reader or it isn't worth our time. The book's deepest flaw, however, is the love story itself. I simply did not like the character of Elise. The development of her relationship with Richard feels artificial and forced. It's definitely a case of the journey being more interesting than the destination.

The novel's most striking feature is its depiction of time travel. It's probably the only novel I've ever encountered that proposes a step-by-step method that does not require any futuristic accessories or special abilities. The method is presented in such detail that it almost tempts readers to try it themselves. I bet that some have, though I have my doubts that any have succeeded.

Richard bases his method on the theories of a real book, J.B. Priestley's Man and Time. The basic idea is that he uses self-hypnosis to convince his mind that he's in the past. He listens over and over to a tape recording of his own voice declaring that the year is 1896 and listing many details of how his surroundings would look in that year. After discovering that his voice is distracting him, he writes the hypnotic suggestions out on paper, over and over and over. The historical roots of the hotel help reinforce his purpose, as does an 1890s suit he buys for himself.

Of course, skeptical readers may suspect that the time-traveling experience occurs only in Richard's mind. Matheson leaves open that possibility. So if you think the love story is unconvincing and seems more like a lonely man's pathetic fantasy, that may be just what Matheson intended.

The movie does a better job of handling these themes. The plot is clearer and more focused. There's no mention of Richard having a brain tumor, and there seems to be external evidence that his journey really took place, such as in an early scene where an old woman goes up to him in a crowd and hands him a pocket watch and says, "Come back to me." He later takes the watch with him into the past, where he gives it to the woman when she's young. This generates one of the most famous time-travel paradoxes in the movies, the watch that seems to have no point of origin, just eternally existing in an endless loop. The book contains other paradoxes of this kind, but more subtly.

While the movie did poorly in theaters and receieved mostly negative reviews, it went on to become a cult classic, with an actual fan club. Being less than enamored by the love story, I was only able to admire the film's craft. It felt to me like an episode of The Twilight Zone, a show to which Matheson contributed heavily. But neither the book nor the film enthralled me the way the novel What Dreams May Come did, perhaps because this time I wasn't truly permitted entry into a new world.

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