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Somewhere in Time by Richard Matheson - Sci-Fi Classic Review

Bid Time Return
The original title

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, if you were to ask me what my favorite novel of all time was, I would probably have told you Somewhere in Time (a.k.a. Bid Time Return) by Richard Matheson. Not only was I a budding sci-fi geek and a hopeless romantic, but I also idolized Richard Matheson as the writer I most wanted to be like. Now that I'm in my forties, I still appreciate the novel, but it's not the masterpiece I once thought it was, maybe just because I'm older and less prone to such saccharine sentiment, or maybe because I've read so much more in the intervening years that its flaws are more apparent now. Of course, I still wouldn't mind being Richard Matheson.

A precocious short story writer who became a staple writer on The Twilight Zone, Kolchak: the Night Stalker, and Star Trek, Matheson also penned several novels that would go on to become classic films, like I Am Legend, Hell House, A Stir of Echoes, The Shrinking Man, and What Dreams May Come, with screenplay adaptations that were usually his own. He was never beholden to a particular genre, though if there is a through-line to the majority of his work, it is not strictly science-fiction so much as magical realism.

Indeed, the subject of today's examination, Somewhere in Time, is only superficially a science-fiction story by virtue of the fact that it (maybe) involves a form of time travel. It is the story of Richard Collier, a lonely television writer who has just been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor that will only allow him a few months to live. He leaves his home in Los Angeles with plans to write a book about an end-of-life cross-country road trip, but when he visits a seaside hotel called the Coronado, he becomes infatuated with a historical photograph of an actress named Elise McKenna, who stayed at the hotel in 1896.

Somewhere in Time

While researching the life of the actress, he becomes convinced that, against all reason, he must have been a part of her life back in 1896, forty years before he was even born, and that they were destined to be with one another. With a book about time he borrowed from the library, he finds a way to meditate his way into the past, where he finally comes face to face with the woman of his dreams.

Matheson leaves it up to the reader to decide whether this magical journey through time is actually happening or if it is all the vivid hallucinations of a dying man. You are invited to think about which reality you'd rather believe, whether you're more inclined to believe the romantic or the pragmatic. In that way, this is a novel about reality being whatever you make of it, that magic exists if you believe in it.

Richard Matheson has always had a bit of a fascination with pseudoscience, and though I've become far more of a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic as an adult, I can still appreciate the romanticism of his writings, especially Somewhere in Time and What Dreams May Come. There's a certain beauty to his ideas, a way of molding the fantastic into a dramatic reassurance that, even in death, life has meaning and poignancy. For Somewhere in Time, he taps into that unique feeling you get when you visit a place with deep history, a warm and powerful sense of setting that Matheson takes to the extreme.

Somewhere in Time
Not sure why, but I kind of hate this cover

It's also important to note that Matheson is melding more reality into his story than you might expect. The Hotel del Coronado, where most of the story takes place, is a real location outside of San Diego, and Matheson himself dictated much of the first portion of the book into a tape recorder, just as Collier does in the story. It's also based on a real portrait of a real actress, as Matheson, while on vacation with his family, became enamoured with a portrait of Maude Adams hanging in Piper's Opera House in Nevada.

He researched Adams, whose life had a mysterious turning point similar to Elise McKenna's, whose mother was also an actress, and who was dominated by a manager who has a lot in common with the fictional William Fawcett Robinson. It's also worth noting that Richard Matheson and Richard Collier are not only both successful television screenwriters, but they also share the same first name, something no author does by accident.

Matheson would go on to call Somewhere in Time his best novel, even though it wasn't his most commercially successful. Its style is a bit disjointed and it is quite glurgy, but it's a neat little romance that has as much meaning as you're willing to put into it. It also has a relatively original portrayal of time travel (though Jack Finney did it first in in 1970's Time and Again, a book that is on my shelf, waiting to be reviewed), and it served as the basis of one of my favorite films of all time. That, however, is a subject for next week.

-e. magill 2/13/2020

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