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Come Fygures, Come Shadowes

by Richard Matheson

(Gauntlet Press, $40.00, 144 pages, hardback; 15 February 2003)

In his interesting afterword to this novel cover scanfragment, the author relates how it came into being. Many years ago, when his writing career was young -- annoyingly, he gives not even an approximate date -- he set out to write a very major novel on the theme of Spiritualism and mediumship, of which the current book is the first quarter or so. The full novel was going to be long: Matheson reckons about 2000 pages -- a quick calculation indicates he means 2000 pages of typescript, or some 600 printed pages. Of course, today this would be a healthy commercial length for a fantasy-related novel, to the point that if it came out a bit shorter the publisher would be increasing the font and margins to beef up the page count a bit; but, 'way back when, Matheson was told (he does not say by whom) that no publisher would contemplate such an enormous work. Accordingly Matheson abandoned the project, in essence stuffing the one-quarter of it he'd already written into a drawer.

Today, of course, Matheson is regarded -- rightly -- as one of the Grand Old Masters of commercial speculative fiction, and Gauntlet are doing an admirable job of issuing various volumes of hitherto unpublished Mathesonana, such as the volumes of Twilight Zone scripts that Randy M. Dannenfelser has reviewed elsewhere on infinity plus; later this year they're releasing a trade paperback of The Collected Stories of Richard Matheson Volume I and Richard Matheson's The Kolchak Scripts.

To judge by this quarter-novel, it's a tragedy that Matheson no longer feels he has the creative juices, or whatever, to complete Come Fygures, Come Shadowes. The portion of the novel that we have here engrossingly tells of Claire, born and reared in Brooklyn, coming of age there in the late 1930s. She is the daughter of Spiritualist medium Morna, who, an nth-degree bitch on wheels, has managed to alienate virtually everyone else in the world of Spiritualism with the exception of a few loyal paying customers. Claire is in fact a much more powerful medium than Morna, but she has no desire to enter the profession -- indeed, she does her best to ignore and rebuff the ever-encroaching presence of the spirit world. However, she is totally under the thumb of her ruthless, vicious mother, and is given no choice in the matter. Although her father -- estranged from Morna -- tries to intervene and save her, we see her slowly failing to save herself from being hauled by the greedy, sucking waves at the spirit-ocean's edge out towards the depths, where she must surely drown.

Secondary characters in the tale include -- aside from Claire's good-hearted, simple souled, occasionally rather drunken father -- her younger sister Vera (who, to put it politely, takes after her mother) and brother Ranald, a supportive lad but inhibited by his youth, for he is the youngest of the three. According to Matheson, the later parts of the book would indeed see Claire die because of the excessive demands made upon her by the spirits, Vera become a conniving charlatan medium, and Ranald finally become the only member of the family to more or less get things right.

As far as this reviewer's knowledge extends, Matheson has done an admirable job of getting all the minutiae of the pre-WWII Spiritualist world right. I confess I had expected to find discords between Matheson's fictionalized depiction of that milieu and the various histories of it I've read over the years, but in fact exactly the opposite was true: his account meshes so well with the historical accounts that I had to keep reminding myself that there had never been such a medium as Morna or Claire Nielsen, that this was indeed a fiction. Similarly, the descriptions of the practice of mediumship and the experience of spirit communication gelled precisely with accounts I've read by genuine (in the sense of sincere) mediums. This completely convincing setting is matched by exquisite storytelling: one is right there beside Claire as she suffers the terrors not only of the spirits, whom she regards (with justification, in her case) as parasites, but also, and even more so, of her vile, obsessively self-centred mother.

I read this book in the form of an ARC, which was clearly labelled with the caveat that this was an uncorrected proof. I take it on trust that the Gauntlet proofreaders have done a thorough job, because the version read was generously littered with minor typographical errors.

But that's merely a side-note. The real trouble with the book that exists is this: We don't have the remaining three-quarters of the novel. The portion that we do have shows Matheson writing at his very best -- I cannot remember having read anything by him that is written as well as this -- but at its end there is no conclusion: we're left with what's as near as dammit a cliff-hanger. This is coitus interruptus with a vengeance! As noted at the outset, it's a tragedy that Matheson doesn't feel able to pick up the reins again and write the remainder of his tale. Although in general one disapproves of the practice of secondary authors being brought in to complete unfinished works from the original writer's notes, perhaps there is actually a case to be made for it here, because the full version of Come Fygures, Come Shadowes could well stand as the novel of Spiritualism -- the fictional record of a time and an environment when at least a sizeable minority, and quite probably a majority, of Americans believed in the possibility of making contact with their dead loved ones through the agency of a medium.

In the meantime, what we have here is a thoroughly absorbing fragment. There are definitely rewards to be gained from reading it, because it's an example of a good writer writing out of his skin -- any novelist, bar none, would be proud of this work -- but they're not the rewards one expects from a novel. With that in mind, this is a book to be highly recommended.


Review by John Grant.

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