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Other Kingdoms by Richard Matheson

1/07/2011. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

Buy Other Kingdoms in the USA - or Buy Other Kingdoms in the UK

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pub: TOR/Forge. 287 page hardback. Price: $24.99 (US), $28.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-.0-7653-2768-0)

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A first person narrative is interesting from many perspectives. It can be used to narrow the perspective of the story as the reader can only see, hear and know what the protagonist does. It allows for a wider range of plot twists and even the odd deus ex machina. At the same time it prevents us from really understanding the motivations of the other characters. In some novels, particularly of the crime genre, this can be useful. Then there is the problem of the unreliable witness. Is the narrator deliberately trying to mislead us? Or is their memory faulty? In PC Wren’s ‘Beau Geste’ trilogy, three novels showing overlapping events from different perspectives, shows how mistakes and misunderstandings can arise.

It would be fair to regard the narrator in Richard Matheson’s new novel, ‘Other Kingdoms’, as potentially unreliable. It is told from the point of view of an eighty-two year-old man who has had a successful career writing horror novels. Now he is relating an experience from his youth which he assures us is absolutely true. The narration rambles with many asides, such as would be expected if an elderly person was perhaps telling his story to a physical audience. Alex White is as old as the century. He tells us that his father was a strict, old-fashioned naval officer who bullied his family. As a consequence and to spite him, Alex enlisted in the army and 1917 saw him in the allied trenches exchanging the horrors of childhood for an equally traumatic experience.

While in the trenches, sketched economically and graphically, he meets Harold Lightfoot. As their friendship develops, Harold tells Alex about his childhood home of Gatford in England, an idyll compared with what he has experienced. Then Harold is killed and Alex badly injured. On release from the hospital, seventeen year-old Alex decides to try and find Gatford. It is not an easy task but finally he makes it and sees it as gorgeous as Harold described. He decides to stay and rents a rather dilapidated cottage. Tom Lightfoot (no relation to Harold) not only repairs his roof but is prepared to tell him the dangers of living here. Gatford is on the edge of faery and humans are only safe if they stay on the path. Those who stray may never be seen again.

Alex, as might be expected, strays. The first time he is rescued by Magda, an older woman who Tom describes as a witch. Magda explains that she follows wicca and knows protections to keep Alex safe from the faery people. Tempted and young, Alex develops a relationship with Magda. He is never quite secure in it as her son, roughly the same age as Alex, was killed in the war. He wonders if she desires him as a replacement for her son or he her as a substitute mother. He worries about the incestual overtones of the relationship especially when he begins an affair with a faery.

Throughout the narrative, ageing Alex insists that this is a true story which he has never told to anyone before. Perhaps it is. Perhaps he merely believes it is so. At the time of the narrated events, no-one believed in shell-shock, yet conditions in which he served and the traumas of life in the trenches such a psychosis is certainly possible. His adventures could have been the result of that. Similarly, as an ageing narrator it is possible that his memory is going and these are the meanderings of someone who wishes it had happened. Certainly, within the narrative are tropes that he could easily have picked up from stories from childhood.

The skill of Matheson as a writer is to make the reader doubt by omission. It is not what the narrator says that is important but what is left out. As the memory plays tricks on all of us, so this author is playing with our minds. There is enough in this book to keep discussion groups arguing for hours about the implications, of events and the amateur psychoanalyst prosthletising, for days about wish-fulfilment fantasies and inappropriate desires. An excellent addition to Matheson’s oeuvre.

Pauline Morgan

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