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Jeffrey E. Barlough
Dark Sleeper

Ace / Penguin Putnam
US Trade Paperback Original
ISBN 978-0-441-00730-1
Publication Date: 09-01-2000
484 Pages; $14.959
Date Reviewed: 02-11-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index:  Fantasy  General Fiction  Horror  Science Fiction

In retrospect, the title is appropriate. The chances are that you're going to have to look around for this book now; and you may have to pay a premium price. But it will be worth it. 'Dark Sleeper' by Jeffrey E. Barlough, the first in his Western Lights Series, was truly unique when it came out, and it's still unique, as are the five sequels that have followed. Barlough's innovations were not just in plot, characters and setting, though you'll not find anything much like these novels out there today. Barlough's work stems from a much deeper divide. He writes with a singular prose and storytelling style that does take a couple of pages to get accustomed to. But once you are immersed in his prose world, you'll find a richer, more rewarding reading experience than you might have imagined possible in our overclocked world.

'Dark Sleeper' begins with an arrival in Salthead, a Victorian town populated by Dickensian characters. Ghosts, ships and demons hang in the sea air. Salthead is clearly haunted, as is the storyteller, whose voice is formal, informal, filled with melancholy and regret. It is the voice within all of us, the aged man who looks back on a life past. But it is a life lived in a very different world than ours.

Jeffrey E. Barlough's novel has the distinct feel of a Victorian supernatural horror novel that was actually written in the alternate world within which it is set. Barlough so truly inhabits the lives of his characters that he transports us with prose that manages the delicate balancing act of being both very mannered and very accessible. From the get-go, you know that you're being told a story, and that the speaker is an old man. He's survived the events he's about to narrate, and he's not indifferent. "You'll forgive a mawkish, maundering old fool if he occasionally strays, ever so slightly, form the path of his story. Life is slower now and not nearly so endless. The clocks tick and I find myself listening to them."

Barlough never strays from his linguistic decision. He never veers, and he never takes it so far as to be impenetrable or annoying. Soon, it seems inconceivable that the novel could be written any other way. Soon after that, the style becomes so likable, you look forward to your next dip into the book as you might look forward to a conversation with a particularly voluble friend, a real raconteur who can spin a story like nobody's business.

And what a story Barlough has to spin. Something malign has arrived in this weird world of Salthead, something unsavory. One of the great pleasures of Barlough's books is his choice of character names. Titus Tiggs and Doctor Daniel Dampe are called upon by the citizens of Salthead to investigate and put a stop to whatever is causing ghosts of children to walk the streets and sunken ships to rise in the harbor of Salthead. The joy of discovering these characters is similar to the joy of the first time you meet Holmes and Watson. So is the prose, and it works perfectly, culminating in a journey worthy of Doyle's Professor Challenger.

All the joy one will take from the storytelling and prose will distract readers from the wealth of innovation one will find in 'Dark Sleeper.' Barlough deftly manages to evoke, at the same time grand romantic adventure, gothic terror and a sort of sweet nostalgia for the world he creates — a world the reader has never and can never visit. The novel is filled with character who manage to be authentically charming without being — even pets. That Barlough can do this so effortlessly is a testimony to his talent.

Given the strength of the underpinnings of this novel; the prose, the characters and the setting, it should come as no surprise that the plot that emerges is more than worthy. Barlough has much more on his mind than a genre-fiction plot. Terror is balanced by wonder, and character arcs have the power of plot points. Once your immerse yourself in the Western Lights, you will wonder how you got along without this world to light your path in ours.

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