“City of Dreams” by Richard Christian Matheson

The fate of the cookies prayed on my mind for days.”

Isn’t it funny? In my last post, where I once again briefly described the mechanics of my annual short story reading project, I mentioned how letting fate decide the order of my reading often led to curious coincidences. Then, in the post before that, I related how a collection of an author’s short stories is something like a batch of cookies. Should I really be surprised, then, when just a few pages into my latest story, the protagonist decides “to make a batch of chocolate chip cookies?” Once again I feel like Haruki Murakami’s Chance Traveler

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The Ace of Spades which I drew this morning led me to Richard Christian Matheson (son of the great sci-fi author Richard Matheson, of “I Am Legend” and many Twilight Zone episode credits fame) and his story, “City of Dreams.” It has immediately become a candidate for my favorite short story of the year (and in the process perhaps proven that literary talent has a genetic component.) Those who’ve been paying attention already know that my stories in the Spades suit are “sci-fi/horror/ghost stories,” and this one was a home run. I acquired this story when I bought the anthology “Haunts: Reliquaries of the Dead” last October (I like to read scary stories around Halloween :-)) It has thus far proved a rich source of great stories. I’ve posted before about another story (“The Door” by England’s ‘Prince of Chill,’ R. Chetwynd Hayes) in this volume.

(below: Richard Christian Matheson)

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Today’s story:

The human brain has a tendency to “fill in the blanks” in the absence of sufficient data. This is the premise or observation around which this ghost story was built. The author relates in the introduction how, in real life, while sitting on his patio, he would occasionally overhear just tiny bits of conversation, etc. from his new neighbors, who he had yet to meet, which led to speculation – and wild imaginings – about who they were and what they might be up to. The protagonist of “City of Dreams” finds himself in a similar situation when a mysterious, obviously wealthy neighbor moves in next door, updating the property with security camera and landscaping (a “leafy moat”) additions, not to mention guard dogs, in the process. The clockwork comings and goings of a black limousine only add to the tantalizing “mystery” of his new neighbor, who he only thinks of as “the Royal.”

Eventually, he seeks to break the ice by making a gift of the aforementioned batch of cookies and leaves them gift wrapped in the mailbox with a kind of introductory note. It appears at first that he is doomed to be snubbed as there is no reaction or thank you forthcoming, and he is just about to give up the chase when he finds a handwritten note in his mailbox saying simply, “We must meet. How about drinks tonight over here. Around sunset?”

When he visits, he is greeted by an “exquisite” young woman, whose smile takes his heart “at gunpoint.” He talks with her at length “without finding out much about her.” Near the end of his visit he admits, “I thought I must be falling in love. I still think I was, despite everything soon to befall me.” (Everything soon to befall me!? How’s that for in-your-face foreshadowing?) Upon their parting, she presents him with a gift, but encourages him to open it “tomorrow, when you’re alone” so he takes it home with him.

Now begins my cliched struggling with how to end this post without giving everything in the story away… Does the woman really live there? No. Is the present given really hers to give away? No. Just who is this woman? This last is the real question, and it was answered to my satisfaction… If you’re looking for a good collection of “ghost” stories, you could do a lot worse than this one. You can find it for sale at: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/haunts-stephen-jones/1103855598m which is where I bought my copy. Happy reading!

Oh, I forgot. I’m supposed to end blog posts with a question. 🙂 Here’s one: What’s your favorite ghost story (and why, if you’ve got the time to share)?

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