The Siren’s Call: No country for young men either
Terror comes in many forms.
Ever since he started writing for sci-fi magazines and for “The Twilight Zone,” Richard Matheson has been giving readers a grand tour in the gardens of menace.
No one is safe. Not just the nervous passenger who sees a monster on the wing of his airplane (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”), but also the lonely commuter being chased by a truck (“Duel”) or a skeptic who hears eerie voices (“A Stir of Echoes”).
In “Other Kingdoms” (Tor: 316 pp., $24.99), a new novel by a writer whom Stephen King considers a major influence, Matheson takes the familiar fairy-tale conceit of the cottage hidden in the woods and makes it all his own.
“Stay with me,” says the book’s narrator, Alex White. “I’m eighty-two years old and have a tendency to ramble.”
It’s not exactly a ramble: There’s a purpose to Alex’s confession. He wants to look back at the decisive incidents that turned him into a horror writer and at an unconsoled grief arising from his encounters, as a young American soldier in World War I, with English fairies and a witch.
That’s right. Fairies and a witch.
Hailing from Brooklyn, N.Y., our narrator’s voyage to the fairy-enchanted woods of the British Isles begins with the horror of trench warfare. It is in the trenches of the cratered Gallic countryside that he befriends Harold, an English soldier. If you make it out of here alive, Harold tells Alex, you should settle in my hometown, the English town of Gatford. And then, there’s a burst of shrapnel.
The same burst that wounds Alex kills Harold, but not before he leaves Alex with a lump of gold “the size of an orange” and a garbled warning to “take my gold and sell it. Buy a cottage — just avoid the middle….”
The middle of what? Of course Alex is no student of the occult — he has no reason to think Harold was referring to the Middle Kingdom, the fairy realm, a world of spirits and elemental beings situated between the human and heavenly kingdoms. He just wants peace and safety, and he hopes to find it in Gatford, a town nestled in “the foliage of ancient, warp-limbed trees” under a “pale, ethereal violet …sky.” The house Alex rents, called Comfort Cottage, is hardly that: It’s a rickety, comical old nightmare of a place, though not nearly as nightmarish as the nearby woods — that’s where the fairies, the wee folk, live, waiting to terrify hapless travelers straying from the forest path.
Of course, that’s what Alex does.
There’s been a Matheson resurgence in Hollywood in recent years — “I Am Legend” and “The Box” (based on his story “Button, Button”) — and it’s no surprise. Now in his 80s, Matheson’s a writer who just has that special knack, the deft skill to imagine terrifying scenarios on any scale, small or large, and give them chilling plausibility.
This holds true in “Other Kingdoms” as Matheson moves, with great economy and precision, through a story straddling many categories: a tale of a collision between a sarcastic, no-nonsense American and Old World superstition; a thwarted love story; a rite of passage involving the initiations of a young man.
One initiation is provided by war, which shows Alex all the brutality of life. More initiations come from Magda, the older woman who saves him from fairy attack. She’s a young man’s fantasy — nurturing and sensual, protective and erotic, a healer. Oh, one other thing: She’s a witch. She doesn’t deny it; instead she insists that her witchcraft is only a means of celebrating nature. She fails to tell Alex for a long time that she once attempted to bring her son, also a soldier, back from the dead. Simple oversight, right?
Things go from strange to weird when Alex encounters Ruthana, one of the fairy folk, bathing in a waterfall. She’s golden-haired and willowy — 3 feet’s worth of elfin foxiness. “I love you,” she tells him on their first meeting, and from that moment on, Alex can’t stop thinking of her, no matter how hard Magda tries to satisfy him. Matheson builds tension out of Alex’s hopeless yearning — how long will he resist Ruthana? — and the uglier, jealous side of Magda (this includes some pretty formidable shapeshifting). Matheson is a master of the twist — and there are plenty here as poor Alex goes from lonely to lost. Each time he thinks he’s safe, he’s wrong.
That’s because Alex is adrift in this new world. The occult does that to people. Any enthusiast, anyone slightly curious, is bound to get lost in trying to make sense of practices and beliefs half-hidden in the shadows.
You might recall the story about the thunder god Thor — any students of Norse myth are welcome to email me and set me straight if this is wrong — drinking from a well. He was extremely thirsty, but no matter how much he drank, the water level wouldn’t lower. He couldn’t understand it. The reason, he discovers eventually, is that the well is secretly being fed by the ocean. That is one way to view the experience of studying the occult, even just a tiny corner of it. Before you know it, you’re chugging gallons of water and getting nowhere.
“Other Kingdoms” won’t cause you shivers in the middle of the night — not the way “A Stir of Echoes” does. Why not? The horror Alex faces isn’t the sort that can seep into our humdrum suburban lives. His struggles are distant — in miles and in years, making his story less a warning of what can happen to any of us and more just a pleasurable, light yarn for an idle Sunday afternoon.
Matheson does give readers vivid stabs of detail about the horrors of warfare as well as less-appealing aspects of the fairy realm (Important note: For a human to reduce to fairy size, bones shrink in a long, slow, painful process). His novel may also whet readers’ appetites for other tales of the wee folk, whether it’s William Butler Yeats’ stories or fine novels by John Crowley (“Little, Big”) and Keith Donohue (“The Stolen Child”).
The fairy world is really a chilling place, a realm of mischief and danger. Matheson’s book taps into this understanding of a time in which mention of the word “fairy” struck terror in people’s hearts — long before Walt Disney got his hands on them and turned them into cartoony figures with pointy ears and high voices.
You can find the world of myth in many trustworthy books — by Joseph Campbell, for instance, or James George Frazer or Robert Graves — but there’s another source that’s free to use and easy to find. It’s just above our heads.
The night sky.
Cambridge University Press offers a wonderful new star atlas, “The Cambridge Atlas of Herschel Objects” (Cambridge University Press: 190 pp., $35), that gives us star charts of the discoveries of the Herschel family — Sir William, Caroline and Sir John — in the 18th and 19th centuries. Here are more than 2,500 objects — nebulae, star clusters and galaxies — that this great English family of astronomers found with homemade telescopes when they studied the skies above Bath. It’s not only exciting to study charts of objects easily visible either to the naked eye or through a decent amateur telescope — this book also provides an exhilarating link to astronomy’s past and specifically to a family whose contributions to the field are considerable (Sir William, by the way, discovered Uranus in 1781).
Some Herschel objects may be faint to us or else altogether invisible, blotted out by the glow of the gas station and strip mall just around the corner. If that is the case, then find a clear, dark sky — pack your scope, head out to the desert or up to the mountains, if you’re not lucky enough to live in a place where Orion, Andromeda and the rest of the mythic gang are waiting for you just outside your kitchen door. Oh, and don’t forget to take along this book.
Owchar is The Times’ deputy book editor. The Siren’s Call appears monthly at https://www.latimes.com/books.
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