Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571
Although unique among Matheson’s novels, What Dreams May Come is closest in theme to the one that immediately preceded it, Somewhere in Time (1980) (originally published as Bid Time Return , 1975), and shares with it certain elements. One is the concept of a soulmate, the single person in the...
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- Critical Essays
Although unique among Matheson’s novels, What Dreams May Come is closest in theme to the one that immediately preceded it, Somewhere in Time (1980) (originally published as Bid Time Return, 1975), and shares with it certain elements. One is the concept of a soulmate, the single person in the world with whom one shares a special rapport. In both novels, the protagonist must overcome seemingly insuperable obstacles to be with his soulmate—in one, the barrier of time; in another, the barrier of death.
One prominent theme in both novels is the dictum, “What you believe becomes your world.” Belief is enough to transport one man from 1971 to 1896 in Somewhere in Time. Similarly, in What Dreams May Come, thought alone creates reality, and Hell is a place of one’s own making. When Chris refuses to accept his death, he becomes lost in a fog that Albert tells him he created. In the “lower realm,” negative thoughts make Chris hunch over. To get through the darkness, he must conceive of light.
Blending a love story with metaphysical theory, What Dreams May Come constituted something new in the fantasy fiction field, making it closer to the nonfiction studies of Raymond A. Moody, Jr., and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross than to other works of fantasy. Although nonfiction books about the afterlife were becoming popular, Matheson was one of the few modern fantasy writers to use this theme in a novel. For the most part, the details of the afterlife are simplified so that the casual reader will find them interesting, and only those details necessary to advance the story are included. For those interested in learning more, Matheson includes a bibliography; later, he wrote a nonfiction metaphysical book, The Path: Metaphysics for the ’90s (1993).
What Dreams May Come and Somewhere in Time constitute a change in direction for Matheson; he veered away from science fiction and horror to romantic fantasy. The change was short-lived, however; in the 1990’s, he turned to Westerns and suspense novels.
There is an implied repudiation of horrific themes when Chris expresses regret for some of the scripts he has written, many of them horrific. Despite this, the story contains a strong horror element, heightened by the author’s assertion that many of the details in the story are based on research. Especially memorable is a scene in which Chris is attacked by flies, dragged through a noxious, viscous fluid, and pulled down by unseen hands from below. Remarking that this is truly Hell, he is told by Albert that there are “Hells within Hells,” an obvious reference to Dante and his division of Hell into “bolgias.”
It is ironic that while Matheson was moving away from macabre stories, horror fiction, led by writers such as Stephen King and Peter Straub, was enjoying greater popularity than ever before. Perhaps the fact that Matheson was ahead of his time accounts for the book’s less-than-stellar sales. Critical reaction was lukewarm; Library Journal found it “preachy, but still compelling,” and Publishers Weekly rated it “only fair as a novel, but appealing to believers in life after death.”
Preachiness aside, the romantic element propels the story, moving Chris to triumph over tremendous odds. Readers are reminded throughout that the mind is everything and that thoughts are real; Hell is not a place but a state of mind. For Chris Nielsen, separated from his soulmate, anyplace is Hell until he is with the one he loves.