What Dreams May Come is an intriguing novel about the afterlife. Richard Matheson is best known for his horror writing, including the classics Hell House and I Am Legend. Tonally, What Dreams is different, focusing less on horor and more on life after death. The book is tinged with a more hopeful, optimistic view of the afterlife than the other books and movies I look at here at the Hell Mythos. This is still a classic of the afterlife, even if it isn’t a particularly Hellish book.
Set-Up: If we’re comparing this to Dante, What Dreams May Come is as much Paradiso as it is Inferno, with a lot of its pages spent to developing a coherent, realistic view of Heaven. Matheson even overwhelms us with a 6 page bibliography of spiritualistic references at the end.
The novel starts when Chris dies in a car accident. He’s trapped briefly on Earth, seeing his own funeral and what not, before he’s taken up to “Summerland,” this novel’s version of Heaven. There, he learns about eternal life. Back on Earth, though, his wife has killed herself out of grief, and Chris must descend to the “other place” (i.e. Hell) to rescue her. Think of this as a reverse Divine Comedy: Heaven first, then Hell, with Matheson taking us on the same grand tour of the afterlife that Dante does. In fact, I’d argue that this is the best Dante-esque afterlife novel of the 20th century. 10/10.
Scope: Matheson takes us from Heaven to Hell: how much more scope do you want? Matheson’s main intent, though, is to turn Heaven and Hell into “real” places. Both are depicted here as a continuation of earthly life rather than a more radical break from it. There’s a well-worn tradition of this in American spiritualist literature, of trying to (for lack of a better word) humanize the afterlife. There are pluses and minuses to this strategy: Heaven and Hell come across as fairly pedestrian, but they also come off as more likely. If you’re looking for the grand spectacle of Dante here, you won’t find it. 8/10.
Horror: For all of Matheson’s credentials as a horror writer, horror isn’t the focus of What Dreams May Come. There’s no gore, no fire, no brimstone; when we finally get to Hell, it’s almost purely psychological. Within those limitations, I think Matheson does an excellent job. When Chris confronts his wife in a faded, broken-down version of their own home, things are truly creepy—but more in a “this is awful” than “this is terrifying” fashion. Just be aware this isn’t a horror novel when you go in, and you should be fine. 8/10.
Originality: While this is definitely written in the shadow of Dante, not many 20th century writers have attempted such a broad look at life after death. There aren’t many novels like What Dreams May Come; it stands out as pretty fundamentally different than the other Hell-focused works coming out of the Clive Barker tradition. While it might not be really about Hell, it’s still a fun and original read. 10/10.
Enjoyability: I like What Dreams May Come. It’s brief and too the the point, and the afterlife it constructs is realistic and always interesting. It doesn’t have the same punch-in-the-gut feel of some other Hell works, but that might be unfair to ask of this book. On it’s own terms, as a kind of modern updating of Dante, this is quite enjoyable. 8/10.
Total: 44/50. If I was ranking the books as being the “best books about Heaven and Hell,” it would have scored higher. The Hell bits are buried in the second part of the book, but this is still a very solid novel, well-worth reading.
Other Takes: My fellow bloggers on WordPress haven’t reviewed this book that often; only a few discussions exist. I would have thought with the movie there would have been more interest in Matheson, but live and learn.
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Several reviewers noted that they liked the film better than the book. Very interesting.