Monday, February 8, 2010

1976 World Fantasy Award - BID TIME RETURN by Richard Matheson

Though not a household name, Richard Matheson is a huge figure in this era of science fiction and fantasy (and especially horror). He wrote several episodes of The Twilight Zone (including some of my favorites like The Invaders and Nick of Time). He wrote an episode of Star Trek (“The Enemy Within,” in which Shatner heroically battles evil Shatner). He wrote the novel that The Incredible Shrinking Man was based on (as well as novels that inspired later films What Dreams May Come, I Am Legend, and a film of this work, starring Christopher Reeve). He also influenced a new generation of horror/fantasy authors, with Stephen King among those that worship him.

Bid Time Return, usually known now as Somewhere in Time, is a metaphysical, time-travelling romance. The novel is presented as the journal of Richard Collier (an analogue of Matheson) who goes to San Diego’s Coronado Hotel after discovering that he has terminal cancer. While there, he falls in love with a picture of an actress from 1896. He researches the woman, falls hopelessly in love with her, and finally decides to travel back in time through new age meditation techniques in order to meet her.

There’s some good material here, and the prose remains imminently readable throughout. I particularly like a nice trick Matheson plays with the prose. The novel starts out in a clipped staccato, partly because Collier is dictating into a recorder, but mostly to represent the fast-pace of the modern world and the simple, unadorned nature of contemporary prose. But, the more Collier becomes absorbed with the Victorian world of 1896, the more ornate his language becomes. The effect is somewhat ruined by Matheson (through Collier) pointing out what he’s done, but I still appreciated it.

I did have a few problems with this novel, however. First, it reminded me a bit too much of Jack Finney’s 1960 novel Time and Again. In Finney’s book, the main character uses meditation techniques to travel from 1969 to 1882, and a historic building plays a key role as well. But, that novel is more lavish and immersive in its attention to detail, and has a darker and more ambiguous plot than the simple love story here. Matheson’s novel just didn’t quite bear the comparison.

Also, as a historian, I generally dislike nostalgia pieces like this. I could name a hundred ways that 1976 was superior to 1896. I love historic and time travel fiction, but I expect more nuance in the presentation of the past.

Finally, and most fatally, I did not buy the relationship between Collier and the actress Elise. They have no chemistry, and their early meetings are a parade of embarrassing faux pas. They only come together because they are destined to come together, and I didn’t find that very satisfying from a character standpoint.

Grade: B-

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