Feb 28 2011 9:30am
Other Kingdoms: An introduction by Greg Cox
It’s been nearly ten years since Tor last published a new novel by Richard Matheson, the legendary author of such classics as I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and What Dreams May Come, among many others. Matheson is an amazingly versatile author, who excels at everything from fantasy to horror to westerns, and Other Kingdoms (out March 1st) combines the romance and nostalgic setting of Somewhere in Time with the supernatural creepiness of, say, A Stir of Echoes or Hell House. It’s both pure Matheson and entirely new.
But what’s it about?
Other Kingdoms is narrated by an aging horror writer (“Alex Black”) as he looks back at the strange events that changed his life many decades before....
Way back in 1918, Alex White survives the horrors of the Great War. Wounded in body and spirit, he comes to the remote English village of Gatford at the urging of a dead British comrade. With his dying breath, Harold Lightfoot told Alex to go to Gatford—and bequeathed him a lump of gold.
“Take my gold and sell it,” Harold said, as he bled to death in the trenches. “Buy a cottage—just avoid the middle—”
The middle what? Alex isn’t looking for a mystery, only a quiet place to recover from the war, but what he finds is love, terror, and wonders both enchanting and nightmarish....
* * *
Harold was right. Gatford was gorgeous. I believed it from my first view. I had reached the crest of a hill that overlooked . . . what? A sight no Technicolor image could match, much less surpass. Vivid colors— lustrous green for the carpeting of grass; deep-colored green for the foliage of ancient, warp-limbed trees and distant mountain growth; pale, ethereal violet for the sky. And in the midst of this unearthly scene, an eye- catching gray stone cottage with a sloping roof of slate tiles, a covered chimney, two windows, and what appeared to be an open, welcoming doorway.
Below me was a modest stone enclosure. For a cow? I wondered. A sheep, a horse? Behind that was a mini-grove of what looked like pine trees and another tree (or giant bush) with a closely packed bouquet of orange yellow flowers topping it. Through the background of this idyllic landscape was a narrow, gently flowing stream. Heaven, I thought. A universe apart from Brooklyn, New York, a triple-cosmos distant from Captain Bradford—what was his last name again? I could not recall. Or chose not to, gazing at this vista of paradise.
Immediate questions vied for my attention. Was this the cottage Harold told me to buy? That was too coincidental to accept. In any case, was the cottage for sale or rent? If so, how would I pay for it? My army discharge pay would give me a few months’ rent, I assumed. But purchase? With what, my lump of gold? Hardly. The gold was, likely, worth more than the cottage—if it was for sale, and who would sell and depart from this ambrosial spot? No, the gold had to be sold. But to who? (Whom?) No idea.
And so I stood there wondering, conjecturing, dreaming, for a long time. Until the sunlight had shifted and shadows began to creep across my property. (In my dreaming, I was already its owner.)
* * *
Realizing, then, that I was much in need of something to eat and a place to sleep for the coming night, I stood, grimacing as I always did when exerting pressure on my hip and leg, and started in the direction I took to be toward the town.
As I have often been, my geographical instinct was completely awry. Not—except for mounting hunger and hip-leg discomfort—that I minded. Why? Because (despite the fact that each ensuing view could not possibly equal the breathless delight of my first vision) I was exposed—or exposed myself, to be strictly accurate—to a virtually endless panorama of exquisite (to me, anyway) properties. A brick cottage in varied shades of pink, its face almost covered by an immense rosebush—with two three-sectioned leaded windows on its first and second floor, a gray wood door on the first, a sloping, dark brown tile roof. In front of the cottage was a panoply of spring flowers in yellow, orange, white, and different shades of red; two great cypress trees stood like sturdy guardians near the front edge of the garden, and the property had (not surprisingly) deep green lawns and dark green trees. No stream here. It wasn’t necessary.
A double- chimneyed, slate-roofed cottage made of mottled, textured stone and matrix of chalk and green sand. (I was told this later, lest you think I was an architectural scholar.) The design (I was also later informed) was foursquare— windows evenly placed with a central door, this one with a rose-hooded archway; hedges and trees and bright green lawns covered the rest of the property. Another eyecatching masterpiece. In the distance, the stream again. Perfect.
A red brick beauty with a heavily thatched roof that reached almost to the ground, windows on the second fl oor wearing hoods of straw. Enormous trees behind it, limbs in twisted growth, foliage thick. A long row of hedges in front, beyond that the sea green lawn. Far off, a slight view of the stream. Perfect again.
I might have walked (or rather, limped) the day away if I’d allowed it to happen. As it was, I saw a good many more of cottaged properties than I have described. You get the point, though. If Gatford was a beautiful woman, I had fallen hopelessly in love with her.
* * *
My tale grows darker here.
Access to the village—which I finally located in the middle of the afternoon (was that the “middle” Harold warned me to avoid?) was across a bridge that had none of the charm I’d seen repeatedly while searching for the village. Instead, the three-arched stone bridge was dark brown in color, approaching black. Its broadwall was cracked and broken, its dirt walk overgrown with dying weeds. Its two stream footings (the stream was wider here) looked on the verge of crumbling. The entire appearance of the bridge was one of—how shall I put it? If the bridge could speak, it would surely say, “Don’t bother crossing me, you aren’t wanted on the other side,” the other side conveying two visions, both ominous. One, an expanse of yellowing lawn on which two blackbirds sat like miniature statues; were they statues or real, unmoving creatures?
They were real, for they flapped away (sluggishly) as I started across the bridge. Did I imagine a sensation of physical discomfort as I crossed? Probably—the appearance of the bridge was certainly enough to put one “off one’s game” as they express it in Blighty. What ever the reason, I felt undeniably queasy. Which feeling did not abate on the other side, because of the second vision—what might have been taken initially for a church, but then as a construction fully as menacing as (or more so than) that of the bridge. Its belfry turret, churchlike façade, and arched windows were all encased or framed with lumps of limestone and flint. On each corner of the thatch- covered roof was a tower. On top of one—it seemed mockingly to me—stood a stone cross. On top of the other three were the stone figures of great birds about to take flight. I could not imagine anyone sitting in that Gothic structure, seeking God. On the contrary, to me (or to my Arthur Black persona; even at eigh teen it was present) it seemed more like a proper setting for one of my later novels. MIDNIGHT ABBEY.
But enough of that. I was not looking for a forbidding first impression. I had loved everything I’d seen until now. Why let Arthur Black’s bleak, impending disposition undo my pleasure? I would not. I moved on.
To more Arthur Black versus Lasting Optimism moments. Who can say which was the victor? It was a battle royal. A nasty squabble, at any rate. For the more I saw of the village, the less enchanted I became. Instead of perfection, the cottages seemed slipshod, thrown up with lack of interest, certainly lack of care. Hurriedly, in fact. As though—
No, no, I struggled. Arthur Black be gone! I didn’t call him by name then; he didn’t exist yet.
But I really had to fight the negative reaction. Oh, it was somewhat better as I reached what I suppose, laughingly, could be described as “downtown” Gatford, a gathering of cottages close together, uninviting shops, and narrow alleys. Not much better.
In one of the alleys, I ran across the Golden Coach, a pub. Not a charmer, not inviting, totally belying its romantic name. But nonetheless a pub, and I was both thirsty and hungry. So I entered same in search of respite. Did I find it? Judge for yourself as I describe what happened.
“ ’Ello, soljer,” said the man behind the counter.
The interior was so dimly lit that I didn’t see him at fi rst, seeing only dark paneled walls, dark chairs and tables, one small window.
I then caught sight of the barkeep, a bulky bearded man with jet-black hair, wearing an oversize red-stained shirt (not with blood, I trusted), his arms and hands thick with beardlike hair. Despite his apelike appearance, he seemed amiable enough. “Y’new in Gatf’d?” he added to his initial greeting.
“Yes, sir, I am,” I responded.
“This morning,” I said.
“Ah-ha.” He nodded as though my reply had some significance, then said, “Wot’s yer name, lad?”
“Alex,” I told him. “Alex White.”
“Alex White,” he repeated. “Good name.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“I’m Tom,” he said, extending his right hand. “Pleased to meet you,” I said, the word “meet” emerging like a wheeze as his bone-crushing grip crushed the bones in my hand. Felt like it, anyway.
“So wot’s yer plea sure, Mr. Whitehead?” he inquired. Jesus, I thought, was getting my last name wrong something in the water? First Harold, now Tom. “Ale,” I told him.
He rattled off the names of seven different brands. I replied that any one would do; give me the one he thought was the best. While he drew the brew (good rhyme, that), I stopped and opened my duffel bag to take out the lump of gold.
If I had placed a giant rearing spider on the counter, I doubt I would have evoked more of a recoil on his part—so excessive that he splashed out half my ale. “Whoa!” he cried.
I could not disguise my surprise: another good rhyme. “What?” I asked.
His next words were equally surprising. “Take it off,” he said, actually he ordered.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, confused.
“I just . . .” He grimaced as though in anger—or in pain.
A chill ran up my back. He sounded alarmed, almost frightened. I removed the lump of gold from the counter and slipped it into my jacket pocket. “I don’t understand,” I said, why does it bother you?”
“Where did you get it?” he asked— again, demanded.
“From a friend,” I said.
“A friend?” he sounded— at the very least— dubious.
“Yes,” I answered. “A British soldier.”
“Named Lightfoot?” he said, he didn’t ask.
Now I was totally perplexed. “Yes, Harold Lightfoot,” I told him, “in France.”
“Why did he give it to you?” he wanted to know.
I was becoming irritated by then. “Because he was dying,” I said coldly.
“That’s right, dying,” I said.
He stared at me, then said, “Harold Lightfoot.”
“Yes,” I said. I was really angry now. “What’s the problem anyway? It’s just a piece of gold.”
“I know it’s a piece of gold, Whitehead,” he said. Christ! I thought, it’s White! White!
“So?” I demanded now, “What’s the problem?”
His change of manner was as confounding as his obvious dismay had been. He smiled pleasantly. “No problem,” he said, “one doesn’t see gold lumps that big very often, or ever.” He smiled again. “Sorry I railed at you.” I knew, somehow, that he was lying. There was more to this than rarely— or ever—seeing lumps of gold that big. A good deal more. But what?
Our conversation after that—if it could be called a conversation—was empty talk. Where was I from? What was it like in France? Was I planning to stay in Gatford? I soon gave up trying for an explanation of his cold behavior re the lump of gold. Taking my glass of ale and duffel bag across the room, I sat at a table by the window—through which precious little daylight penetrated. There I sat, mulling over the peculiar—aggravating—incident. I took the lump of gold from my jacket and examined it. Mystery on mystery, I thought. What was the answer?
Other Kingdoms copyright © 2011 by Richard Matheson