This node is primarily about the original novel by Richard Matheson. It does contain comparisons with the movie version, and that way lie Spoilers...
Tom Wallace lives an ordinary life in California. He has a good job, a loving wife and son, and another child on the way. His sense of normalcy is shattered, however, the night he brings his brother-in-law along to liven up a neighbor's party. After a seeming straightforward hypnosis session, Tom discovers that some kind of latent psychic ability has been activated within him, and it threatens to destroy everything he holds dear.
Tom's problems begin with seeing a ghost in his living room that night. His brother-in-law Phil explains it away the next morning as a telepathic image that is residual effect of the hypnosis which should wear off quickly. Tom tries to accept this, but cannot shake the nagging belief that the woman he saw represents something far more sinister and persistent. As he starts to get more and more telepathic flashes of his neighbors innermost secrets, he is both repulsed and drawn to discover more. But he soon learns just how dangerous a little knowledge can be...
In 1999, Stir of Echoes was adapted into a movie, written and directed by David Koepp and starring Kevin Bacon as Tom Witzky (last name changed from Wallace). Although Koepp took liberties with the plot, as is the norm in Hollywood, it is still a pretty good movie, and Bacon does a good job with a character who is slowly being driven mad by the visions he sees and knows to be true. Seeing the movie before reading the boook (as I did) really drives home how great Matheson's writing is, but even if you've read the book, the film adaptation is still worth watching.
One major difference between the novel and the movie is that of perspective. Matheson wrote the book in the first person, with Tom Wallace himself narrating. While this gives the reader direct access to Tom's thoughts, perceptions, and reactions, it is nearly impossible to translate well to the big screen. Instead of seeing what Tom sees, colored by his perceptions and preconcieved notions, the movie shows us Tom from the outside. It is surprisingly effective, however; we get a much better picture of how his condition appears to his family, friends, and neighbors. The book concentrates much more on his internal struggle to understand, come to terms with, and, eventually, use his new gift (or curse, as the case may be).
The internal focus of the novel allows for much more range in Tom's new-found abilities and his reactions to them. Where Bacon's portrayal shows a man whose obsession makes him increasingly insensitive to his family's needs, the book shows us that, while part of Tom wants to try to go with the flow as far as psychic abilities will take him, another part wants to make absolutely sure that it does not hurt those around him. He despises lying to his wife and hiding how much his condition takes out of him, but he wants to spare her the added stress on top of her pregnancy.
In the movie, the driving force behind Tom's ability seems to be the ghost he sees in the living room. All of his psychic experiences tie into this, from precognitive flashes of a neighbor's son committing suicide to the dread he feels leaving his son in the care of a babysitter. While some of this did feel contrived, they did lead Tom to a singular obsession with discovering the fate of the young woman who keeps appearing to him. It's as if every event in his neighborhood centers around her or at least connects to her in some fashion, leading up to some beautiful scenes where Tom's obsession controls him to the point of digging up the yard, then the basement in a wild-eyed frenzy.
In the book, however, not everything Tom picks up is linked to the mysterious girl. The train wreck he dreams of as it's happening has no relation to her at all, and the babysitter he rushes home to save his son from is a mental wreck, but is not (as in the movie) the sister of the murdered girl. The different pieces connect more as separate pieces of the same jigsaw puzzle that makes up Tom's neighborhood, rather than a web with the ghost at the center, pulling all the strings. His finaly discovery of the shallow grave beneath the house feels almost anticlimactic ... at least until the story's true climax arrives with a bang.
The title comes from the poem "Chambers of Imagery" by Archibald MacLeish, which is quoted in the preface of the novel:
Sometimes within the brain's old ghostly house,
I hear, far off, at some forgotten door,
A music and an eerie faint carouse
And stir of echoes down the creaking floor.
This verse sets the perfect stage for the story. As Alan Porter, the psychiatrist Tom consults after the stresses start to get the better of him, theorizes: within every human mind is the vestigal ability to communicate telepathically. It was necessary in the distant, forgotten past, before humans invented language, but quickly faded into the background when it was no longer needed. Some people have access to those abilities, and in Tom, the hypnosis threw open the "forgotten door," and the "faint carouse" became a volumnous din he could not ignore.
Matheson's writing is masterful in this suspenseful tale. At the center of his story is an ordinary man, pushed well beyond what most people have to endure, who must come to terms with his paranormal abilities before losing his mind. I was so drawn in that I had to read the whole thing in a single sitting, and it makes me wonder what goes on behind the pleasant facades my own neighbors put on.
Stir of Echoes by Richard Matheson
Film version by David Koepp