“THE RITUAL OF ILLUSION” (Book Review)
Movies are manufactured dreams, built on money, sweat, love, and elaborate artifice. For many of us, they’re a lot like religion that way.
And of all the cinematic shadow-dancers that draw us in to worship, there are none more mysterious, alluring, or larger-than-life than the stars we project on our screens.
Where do they come from, these golden showbiz gods and goddesses? What makes them so potent, so irresistibly compelling, that we are drawn like gray moths to their charisma-burning flame? And what might moonlit grave-robbery, ghosts, soul-sucking madness, psychic parasitism, suicide, the studio system, multiple murders (both solo and en masse), and one spooky-ass book in the wrong hands have to do with it?
These are the questions at the heart of Richard Christian Matheson’s THE RITUAL OF ILLUSION (PS Publications, hardcover), a stunning, cunning puzzle box novella made of pieces you have to assemble yourself, RASHOMON-style. Sifting through dozens of talking-head testimonials, it reveals the story of Sephanie Vamore, a gorgeous screen siren whose brief film career has a massive collateral body count.
Who was she? Where the fuck did she come from? Why couldn’t we take our eyes off of her? And where did her exquisite body go, after the lethal car crash that all the evidence suggests she died in? (Did I mention that this was a puzzle box? And that none of the answers are gonna come easy?)
Richard Christian Matheson – son of the late, great Richard Matheson – has long been known by dark fiction cognoscenti as a master of the surgically-concise short-short story: a hyper-disciplined version of what people now call flash fiction, in which you have to lay it all down in give-or-take 1,000 words. (See his collections SCARS and DYSTOPIA for the staggering evidence trail.)
But for the first time, with THE RITUAL OF ILLUSION, he takes this precise rigor to a larger canvass, and delivers a multi-layered brain-tickling book I’m frankly itchy to read again. Wanting to see if I put the pieces together right. Clocking all the points where he tricked me. GODDAMIT!
FANGORIA Alert: for all the fucked-up shit that happens here, very little of it is spelled out in meatgrinder detail. RC Matheson’s inclusion in the splatterpunk pantheon has mostly to do with the subversive nature of his work, and the fact that we were traveling pals back in that late-twentieth-century day; people looking for three-page forensic skullfuck depictions are (and always were) likely to come away dissatisfied.
This is a whole different kind of skullfuck. The kind Hollywood provides on a daily basis, for both the people behind the dream-making machinery and the audience that devours it whole. But believe me, that shit runs deep. Way deeper than most of the casual redneck rape-a-thons currently cavorting across the extreme horror scene. More like a scalpel than a meat cleaver, if you get my drift. But will kill you just as dead.
Bottom line: it’s a really fine book, by a truly fine writer. And yes, it’s horror, somewhere between PONTYPOOL and E: TRUE HOLLYWOOD STORY on your nightmare viewing scale. With the intelligence and depth of the former, and the squalid showbiz revelation of the latter. A tart and resonant Hollywood satire, with implications that may haunt you for years on end.
And which, as such, I wholeheartedly recommend.