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WEST WORDS

When mystery comes knocking

Woman A Novel Richard Matheson Gauntlet Press: 126 pp., $12.95 paper

July 31, 2005|Jonathan Kirsch | Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is at work on a book about the biblical book of Revelation and its role in American politics and popular culture.

Richard MATHESON is one of the grand masters of the suspense, terror and science-fiction genres, a fact that is best evidenced by the praise so readily and so ardently bestowed by far more famous authors such as Ray Bradbury and Stephen King.

Born in 1926, Matheson has been a toiler in the vineyards of the entertainment industry for half a century. Matheson, for example, wrote the scripts for some of the earliest and most memorable episodes of "The Twilight Zone." His novel, "The Shrinking Man," was filmed as "The Incredible Shrinking Man" in 1957, and "I am Legend" was made into two movies -- "The Last Man on Earth" with Vincent Price in 1964 and "The Omega Man" with Charlton Heston in 1971. And he wrote the screenplay for "Duel," an early directorial effort by Steven Spielberg. Matheson is still hard at work, and his latest novel is yet another example of his genius for hard-wiring an entertaining story to the deepest and darkest impulses of human nature and human destiny.

David Harper, the hero of "Woman," is a psychologist turned author and radio shrink. Starting with the opening scene of the book -- a needy, beguiling female listener shows up at Harper's apartment door, whereupon his wife, a network sitcom producer, warns the stranger away with a few cold words -- Matheson shows his sure command of the subtleties of sexual politics and his deftness as a storyteller.

"She was terribly disturbed, Liz," protests Harper.

"Aren't we all?" his wife retorts. And then, mindful of the guests who will arrive soon for a pre-Emmy party, she abruptly changes the subject: "Are you sure we have enough ice?" But the stranger is not so easy to get rid of. Her name is Ganine, and she is something of a gamine.

But she also seems to possess the spooky power to inflict and relieve pain from afar without quite knowing why or how she does so. And yet, even though she is clearly capable of dominating everything and everyone around her, Ganine turns to Harper for help.

"There's something inside me," says Ganine. "Something strong. Something I don't like."

Harper runs through the range of clinical diagnoses -- an unwanted pregnancy, a false pregnancy, a multiple personality disorder. Ganine, however, makes it hard for him to keep his mind on his work: "If I let you have my body," she says, "will you help me?"

A good chunk of Matheson's short novel is given over to a vigorous debate over what used to be called "women's lib." Indeed, Matheson's use of the phrase adds a certain antique quality to the argument. And the long, boozy and often profane conversation that Matheson describes in detail focuses on questions that will surprise no one. Can men and women get along? Are they interchangeable or is there some essential difference between them? Is the male fear of feminism really the fear of sexual freedom for women?

"[W]ho can blame men for turning queer?" asks one of the coarser guests at the party. "Women aren't women anymore. They're female men."

Matheson is as interested in the debate as he is in plot. Using his characters as straw men (and women) to give voice to the conversation going on in his own head, Matheson considers what the Bible, Shakespeare, Freud, and Yoko Ono have to say about the war of the sexes. Among the female archetypes that he conjures up is the one that embodies the fearful fantasies that men have created to express their own terrors: "Lilith for the Hebrews. Empusa for the Greeks, Lamia, the vampire. Woman draining and destructive."

None of the chatter, however, detracts from the insistent and mounting sense of danger that Ganine inspires in everyone she encounters. She might be a mental case whose antics are, quite literally, crazy-making. She might be a psychopathic killer. But could she actually be the kind of demoness that, as far as sensible people are concerned, exists only in myth? Matheson answers the question in a final scene that would not be out of place in one of his '50s-era thrillers and might be his homage to the genre.

Matheson has been honored over the years with a great many prizes, including the World Fantasy Life Achievement Award. Significantly, a great many of his prizes were bestowed upon him by his fellow writers, including the Edgar and the Bram Stoker Lifetime Achievement Award. And "Woman" demonstrates that Matheson's powerful imagination -- an imagination that is deeply imprinted on various aspects of American popular culture -- remains in good working order. *

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