My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Richard Matheson’s What Dreams May Come sets itself up as a memoir of sorts (SNARK ALERT: unfortunately some memoirs deserve that tag, too), a piece of nonfiction dictated from the afterlife. Obviously, it’s a novel, the story of Chris Nielsen, who dies in a car accident, and whose spirit is transported to the afterlife, or a realm of the afterlife known as Summerland.
Before Chris’ spirit goes to Summerland, he finds himself stuck in a sort of purgatory in which he has to accept he’s dead. What keeps him in this state is his wife, Ann, whose grief he witnesses, and his desire to assure her that she’s going to be fine.
Once he finally enters Summerland, he’s guided and acquainted to this level of the afterlife by his cousin, Albert.
Like Dante’s visions of the afterlife, Matheson’s afterlife consists of many levels and Summerland isn’t quite heaven, though it’s not unpleasant–it’s a place of perpetual sunlight and summer where spirits come to work to get to higher levels, a heavenly corporate ladder of sorts.
Though Chris finds Summerland pleasant enough, he never finds it satisfying because he longs for his wife. His love for her seems boundless, and when she commits suicide on Earth, his love takes him on a journey to hell to rescue her, to get her spirit to see life/the afterlife is worthwhile.
The novel is uneven, an OK read.
Matheson’s afterlife is New Age-y and universalist in outlook: Buddhists get Nirvana, Christians get Heaven (eventually, although it’s not an immediate reunification with God), and Vahalla is probably in there, too. He explores several theological/philosophical concepts, in particular the soul’s attempt to move level by level in the afterlife, until reunion with God is acquired. Most often this climb up requires rebirth on Earth, until the soul is perfected.
Matheson also plays with the fiction/nonfiction them by adding a bibliography of book about death and the afterlife at the end of the novel.
Its weakness: the idealistic, overly sentimental relationship between Chris and Ann. It’s almost too perfect. Granted the novel is fantasy, but their relationship lacks in realism, though Chris protests it wasn’t perfect—like most couples they fought over money, they almost got divorced—his protests are unconvincing. They always make up and smoothe things over perfectly, even in their most difficult journey—guiding Ann into the afterlife to be reborn.