"A Stir of Echoes" is a 1958 novel by acclaimed science-fiction writer Richard Matheson. Somewhat confusingly, it was adapted into a movie in 1999, but under the title "Stir of Echoes". The book is a combination of horror, science-fiction and suspense, combining social realism with aspects of the supernatural.
Tom Wallace is a Public Relations worker for an aircraft company in southern California, which is not specifically important, but sets the tone. It is the 1950s, people are moving to the suburbs and are optimistic, but of course something lurks beneath he surface. The action of the plot begins when Wallace's brother-in-law hypnotizes him as a party trick. Later that night, he sees what appears to be a ghost in his home. This unleashes a week of Wallace experiencing different types of psychic phenomena, including precognition, psychometry and telepathy. These abilities are played out against a backdrop of suburban scandals and problems: Wallace's wife, Anne, is pregnant, as his neighbor Elizabeth, against her husband's desires. Married neighbor Elsie is more than just a little bit flirty with Tom, although her husband has no idea. All of this is described in a fairly straightforward manner, as a comedy or drama about suburban life---except for the supernatural element of Tom's sudden psychic powers. But "powers" is somewhat of a misnomer, because his abilities are as much vulnerabilities as they are powers. Rather than coolly picking thoughts from people's minds, it is depicted as a crippling inundation of thoughts and feelings. The book manages to perfectly combine the world of daily anxieties of a young married man with a pregnant wife, with the sudden ability to see ghosts.
This book worked so well for me because it told a story that flowed naturally from the characters actions, but also included topical material that related naturally to the story. The book explicitly links the sudden development of Wallace's powers with the tension that lies beneath the perfect suburban facade.
I thought about Elsie hiding her carnal clutter of her mind behind a face of bland innocence; about her brow-beating her husband mercilessly. I thought about Sentas and his wife and the tension that always seemed to be between them. I thought about the bus driver up the block who was an alcoholic who spent half his weekends in jail; about the housewife on the next street who slept with high school boys while her salesman husband was on the road.
And of course, it might seem like the point is rather trite
: that sunny suburban streets hold secrets is not the most original message, and even in the 1950s it was a predictable message. But the book manages to illustrate it very effectively. Through the book, the tension lies not so much in confronting the supernatural, as the tension in seeing the community face its veil torn apart. Some of the aspects of this seem quaint for me today: a big part of the story is that mental illness
was such a great stigma at the time, and the book also assumes that a woman in a physically abusive relationship would have little or no recourse. The setting of the 1950s middle-class life is a big part of this book, and while it was apparently adapted into a different setting in the 1999 film adaptation, I think that would be a different story.
So, in conclusion, this book works on different levels: as both a socially realistic novel depicting post-war suburban life, and as a suspense or horror story about what happens when an average person is suddenly exposed to the paranormal.