Part fantasy novel, part romance novel, Richard Matheson’s “Bid Time Return” finds dying writer Richard Collier falling in love with a photograph of a turn of the century actress Elise McKenna, becoming obsessed with her and then finding a way to travel back in time to meet her.
On the surface, the premise sounds absurd, but really no more so than your standard romance novel. It’s the story of two people falling in love and overcoming obstancles to be together. In this case, it’s the gulf of time standing between them. At least that’s the case at first.
Once you accept the premise that Collier can and does find a way to move back in time to meet McKenna (he’s staying at the same hotel she is, so he doesn’t move in space, only time), the rest of the story falls well into place. Matheson’s narration of the Collier via first-person, starting off in short, punctuated bursts from Collier’s audio diary and later becoming longer and more detailed as Collier switches to writing out his feelings and confiding more in the readers, helps draw the reader in and question if this is really happening or if Collier has descending into dementia due to a brain tumor. Thankfully, Matheson wisely decides to not confirm or deny the reality of events, allowing the reader to choose for themselves.
Instead, what drives the story is Matheson’s ability to put ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and realistically portray the character’s reactions. The premise may be one of fantasy, but the characters are realistic. It’s easy to see why Stephen King says Matheson was a big influence on his (King’s) works.
Time travel in a romance story is apparently nothing new. But Matheson’s strengh is finding a new twist on the old story, bringing in just enough of his own distinctive storytelling style to make it his own. This is a book that will have you rooting for Collier in his quest and heartbroken at the end when it ends in tragedy (as it must, since the ending is set before the story begins.) But it’s not the ending that matters so much as the journey. And in the hands of Matheson, this is a journey worth taking.