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Matheson, Richard – “Lover, When You’re Near Me” (1952)

04/23/2013

One of the all-time great weird stories is Robert Smythe Hichens’s “How Love Came to Professor Guildea,” (1900) the story of an ultra-materialist man of science who declares that he has no need for human affection and is promptly haunted by some sort of cooing, codependent presence that eventually drives him to his death. I have to assume that this story – in which a man takes over the running of a factory on an alien planet and is then cursed with the affection of the alien woman who is his housekeeper – is an intentional science-fictional updating of this supernatural story, like Kornbluth’s “The Mindworm” or Wilson Tucker’s “The Tourist Trade.”

David Lindell is a representative of Wentner’s Interstellar Trading Company recently posted to Station Four, known as “the Three-Moon Psycho Ward” although no one can tell him why – all he knows is that postings are usually for two years, but on Station Four they last only six months. These postings are overseers keeping an eye on populations of native laborers – to go along with “The Girls From Earth”’s vision of the future as a reiteration of the American frontier, Matheson’s galaxy is just 19th century colonialism projected on a larger frame. Lindell holds the native Gnees in contempt, but the narrative does nothing to suggest that he is wrong to do so. The men who work at the factory are dumb and listless and spend their non-work time sleeping, while the woman who serves as Lindell’s housekeeper has a squat, coarse head, “pink and hairless-like the mottled belly of an expecting chihuahua” with a single-nostriled stub for a nose, and lips “thick and monkeylike, outlining a small circle of mouth.” Because of her hideous appearance (he thinks), he impetuously decides to call her “Lover.”

He also quickly realizes that lover is telepathic, which fact pleases him greatly because “[a]t other stations it was either you learn half the language to get a ham sandwich or try and teach ‘em English so I wouldn’t starve. Either way I really had to sweat for my supper until things got settled.” The most obvious initial downside is that he can never escape Lover’s pathetic supplications.

He gets a hint about the other downsides once he arrives at his office to find a cot, a belt lacking a buckle, and scratch marks on the wall – “The join is haunted,” he thinks to himself, even before he starts reading the log book and finds that with the exception of the first supervisor, a man named Jeff, all of his predecessors quickly lost their minds and left records of gibberish. Things continue to worsen as he is struck by a recurring nightmare, Lover begins leaving flowers by his bed even after he locks the door, her thoughts continual crawl over his brain like microscopic insects, and then he finds a cogent note left in the logbook: “God help me,” read the note, black and jagged-lettered. “Lover comes through the walls!”

This all spirals downward until she actually physically assaults him, which is of course what has driven all the other colonialists off the planet (and, it’s implied, rendered the men of the Gnee so docile and idiotic – it is a “matriarchy of the mind”), except for Jeff, who initiated this miscegenation, and who Lover (his nickname for her, telepathically suggested to Lindell without his realizing) longs to reconnect with, to the degree of calling Lindell “Jeff dear” and making him grow a beard like Jeff’s and so forth.

This is a relatively well-written and excellently paced and plotted story when compared with its fellows, but it, like so many of the others, falls short not only because of its rampant misogyny and colonialism, but because of its insistence on making everything explicit and clear. “Guildea” has neither of those faults – the ghost/presence is resolutely ageless, sexless, and mysterious – and is by far the superior of the two works.

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