Review: THE RITUAL OF ILLUSION
A Novella by Richard Christian Matheson
There is nothing regular about THE RITUAL OF ILLUSION—nothing usual, typical, or formulaic. And that is its greatest strength.
The seedy side of Hollywood has been treated fictionally before, of course; even in the context of the supernatural. And it serves to say that this story could have been told by way of traditional prose: opening with a mystery, following a starlet to her demise, and culminating in the kind of horrifying violence that can only be karmaic retribution for tampering with reality. Perhaps it even would have worked. But Richard Christian Matheson was never one to take the usual approach to anything, and for that, THE RITUAL OF ILLUSION becomes something entirely different. It is a glittering enigma.
The book is a series of interviews related in script format, featuring commentary from fictional celebrities (who venture as far as to comment on real ones, in fabulously lip-smacking satire) on the subject of a mysterious, magnetizing starlet named Sephanie Vamore. The events are related entirely out of order. In fact, the resulting narrative has the effect of your learning the details as you’re circling a drain: down, down, gradually letting go of the edges of normality before you dip completely under and drown. A ripe metaphor for the film business itself. It demands a reread almost immediately—not only to check for things you might have missed the first time (just who was that seven-foot tall monster man at the Malibu party?), but to continue to relish the prose style, which is nothing less than magnificent.
It would be easy to say something like, “This is Richard Matheson’s son, so you should read it,” but RITUAL OF ILLUSION requires no such familial pandering. The Young Matheson packs his novella with biting metaphors (“I heard she’d had a really bad lift and was hiding-out like Dillinger with an infected tambourine for a face”) and softer ironies (“Movies are religion with popcorn. Someone write that down”). There is an interview transcription with Vamore herself that says almost nothing but tells us everything (“I don’t like looking in the mirror”). And there are descriptive passages that are so good they tickle your nosehairs: “We all went to this vulgar club one night in London. Filled with the chic and illicit with paparazzi outside, pacing like telephoto ghouls… Dark, ventricle corridors led from the dance floor into profligate little rooms filled with gang bangs and needles scenes and sick messes. The music was so defeaning it cracked the ice in your drink.” Relish it.
The book’s whirlwind-interview format allows for a multitude of writing (speaking?) styles, and Matheson nails them all—particularly the obsessive, slightly self-conscious capsule of fandom given by one “Casey Anna Spicer”, president of the mythical star’s fan club: “She is the most gorgeous talented and hypnotizing woman who ever lived and when she is up on the screen and looking so sad and she cries and her emotions just pour out of her like blood I am completely alive and I wish I could just climb inside her and live in there which I can’t but I think about it constantly.” It’s like a particularly poetic (and creepy) excerpt from a teen girl’s diary.
Of course, all these different perspectives are what give RITUAL OF ILLUSION its ultimate sense of rumor, of Hollywood gossip, of the fact that none of this might have happened the way anybody told it; that Sephanie Vamore may well have not existed and everyone dreamt her up as someone they needed to have in their life, or project upon. Except, there are the deaths she caused. The lingering, bloody effects of movie magic gone wrong. I would not call this a horror story by any means—it’s far beyond that, playing with our perceptions of fame and self, ghosting in and out of dialogues like a well-used reel of film.