Terror comes in many forms.
Ever since he started writing for sci-fi magazines and for "The Twilight Zone," Richard Matheson has been giving readers a grand tour in the gardens of menace.
No one is safe. Not just the nervous passenger who sees a monster on the wing of his airplane ("Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"), but also the lonely commuter being chased by a truck ("Duel") or a skeptic who hears eerie voices ("A Stir of Echoes").
In "Other Kingdoms" (Tor: 316 pp., $24.99), a new novel by a writer whom Stephen King considers a major influence, Matheson takes the familiar fairy-tale conceit of the cottage hidden in the woods and makes it all his own.
"Stay with me," says the book's narrator, Alex White. "I'm eighty-two years old and have a tendency to ramble."
It's not exactly a ramble: There's a purpose to Alex's confession. He wants to look back at the decisive incidents that turned him into a horror writer and at an unconsoled grief arising from his encounters, as a young American soldier in World War I, with English fairies and a witch.
That's right. Fairies and a witch.
Hailing from Brooklyn, N.Y., our narrator's voyage to the fairy-enchanted woods of the British Isles begins with the horror of trench warfare. It is in the trenches of the cratered Gallic countryside that he befriends Harold, an English soldier. If you make it out of here alive, Harold tells Alex, you should settle in my hometown, the English town of Gatford. And then, there's a burst of shrapnel.
The same burst that wounds Alex kills Harold, but not before he leaves Alex with a lump of gold "the size of an orange" and a garbled warning to "take my gold and sell it. Buy a cottage — just avoid the middle…."
The middle of what? Of course Alex is no student of the occult — he has no reason to think Harold was referring to the Middle Kingdom, the fairy realm, a world of spirits and elemental beings situated between the human and heavenly kingdoms. He just wants peace and safety, and he hopes to find it in Gatford, a town nestled in "the foliage of ancient, warp-limbed trees" under a "pale, ethereal violet …sky." The house Alex rents, called Comfort Cottage, is hardly that: It's a rickety, comical old nightmare of a place, though not nearly as nightmarish as the nearby woods — that's where the fairies, the wee folk, live, waiting to terrify hapless travelers straying from the forest path.
Of course, that's what Alex does.
There's been a Matheson resurgence in Hollywood in recent years — "I Am Legend" and "The Box" (based on his story "Button, Button") — and it's no surprise. Now in his 80s, Matheson's a writer who just has that special knack, the deft skill to imagine terrifying scenarios on any scale, small or large, and give them chilling plausibility.
This holds true in "Other Kingdoms" as Matheson moves, with great economy and precision, through a story straddling many categories: a tale of a collision between a sarcastic, no-nonsense American and Old World superstition; a thwarted love story; a rite of passage involving the initiations of a young man.
One initiation is provided by war, which shows Alex all the brutality of life. More initiations come from Magda, the older woman who saves him from fairy attack. She's a young man's fantasy — nurturing and sensual, protective and erotic, a healer. Oh, one other thing: She's a witch. She doesn't deny it; instead she insists that her witchcraft is only a means of celebrating nature. She fails to tell Alex for a long time that she once attempted to bring her son, also a soldier, back from the dead. Simple oversight, right?
Things go from strange to weird when Alex encounters Ruthana, one of the fairy folk, bathing in a waterfall. She's golden-haired and willowy — 3 feet's worth of elfin foxiness. "I love you," she tells him on their first meeting, and from that moment on, Alex can't stop thinking of her, no matter how hard Magda tries to satisfy him. Matheson builds tension out of Alex's hopeless yearning — how long will he resist Ruthana? — and the uglier, jealous side of Magda (this includes some pretty formidable shapeshifting). Matheson is a master of the twist — and there are plenty here as poor Alex goes from lonely to lost. Each time he thinks he's safe, he's wrong.
That's because Alex is adrift in this new world. The occult does that to people. Any enthusiast, anyone slightly curious, is bound to get lost in trying to make sense of practices and beliefs half-hidden in the shadows.