Sep 18, 2012

Other Kingdoms - Richard Matheson

Other Kingdoms
Author: Richard Matheson
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: March 1, 2011

If I had to describe this novel in one word it would be "slight". The expectation set early on is that this will be a tale of wonder and terror. However, the bland story that unfolds is one of the mildly curious and somewhat alarming. It is a fast read. At no point does it ever bog down and become truly boring, the novel is too insubstantial to provide an opportunity for that.  It's like being on a rollercoaster ascending a remarkably gentle slope that just suddenly stops.

Like most people that have read him I think that Richard Matheson has oodles of talent and so on and so forth and I was delighted that he'd written a new novel. That said, I'd been disappointed in some of his work before, I didn't care for 7 Steps to Midnight, and after finishing Other Kingdoms my initial reaction was that it was passable but not one of his better works. Then I found I liked it less the more I thought about it.

Alex White is an elderly horror writer narrating a remarkable true story from his past. After meeting a British soldier in the trenches during WWI he settles down in the small English village of Gatford. Here he finds love and heartbreak in his dalliances with a mysterious, beautiful woman, rumored to be a witch and his encounters with Ruthana, another beautiful woman who is also one of the faerie folk of legend. Both have strange powers, one of them is very dangerous.

This is written in the first person and the narrator is the rambling, self conscious, eighty-two year old man. Matheson peppers his prose with plenty of asides in parenthesis (nice alliteration there). While this does capture the sense of listening to a story being told by an old man very much aware of how unbelievable his tale is, it is distracting and a bit too clever (see what I just did there?). The story is also told in a very matter of fact way. Matheson often takes a scientific or modern approach to the supernatural. When this works it can lend credibility to fantastic subject matter. If anything ever needed a lyrical quality though, it's a tale of faeries in the magical English countryside. There is surprisingly little lyricism (see...OK, I'll stop now.) to be found here.

Cottingley fairie hoax

The rather frank sexual content is awkward. Not so much because is badly handled but because it sits so uncomfortably in the context of the rest of the novel. Maybe if this had simply been a story about Alex and Magda it might not have been an issue but it gets a little bizarre when Ruthana comes into the story. Alex is a rather dull protagonist. Things just happen to him and the only reason he draws attention from the other characters is because he is young, pleasantly callow and very handsome or screwing somebody's sister. He never really fights for anything. He relies on the protection of others. He exists to bear witness to terrifying and wondrous things but, as I've said, terror and wonder are largely missing from the novel.

I will say that Other Kingdoms approaches being compelling when Alex is faced with a choice between Magda and Ruthana and neither he, nor the reader, knows who to trust. Matheson does create a plausible and interesting dilemma and it is not obvious who is lying. Once this is resolved though, all the tension is drained out of the story. Alex faces two main antagonists and Matheson makes a strange choice in resolving Alex's conflict with the more interesting of the two first. This part of the story had potential and should have been the main conflict and laid the ground for the climax. It might have actually given Alex an opportunity to finally act in some way. As it stands, the main conflict that Matheson chooses to go with is dull by comparison. The reason for the conflict is capricious, Alex is not as emotionally invested in it.

The ending carried no emotional impact for me. What was no doubt intended to be a bittersweet conclusion failed to engage me in any way as it wasn't earned, it was merely over. The bare bones of an interesting novel are here but I never got the sense that Matheson was fully committed to it. It just isn't funny, magical, frightening or poignant enough to be even somewhat remarkable. Again, it's an easy read, I didn't find it tedious or painfully silly while reading it and I do think this has a great deal to do with Matheson's skill as a story teller. It's something he can do in his sleep. In this case it seems like he was.

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