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Kim Newman

Simon and Schuster

UK Hardcover First

ISBN 0-671-71725-1

537 pages; £14.99

Bad Dreams

Kim Newman

Carroll & Graf

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-671-71724-1

273 pages; $18.95

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2001




04-18-02, 09-11-02, 10-08-02, 11-13-02, 12-13-02

I don't know what possessed me to buy last year's "The Night Mayor" by Kim Newman. The fact that it was described as cyberpunk in the jacket copy should have been enough to scare me off. If anything, I have to admit that I did love the front cover illustration. But what was waiting inside was a fabulous novel set in a virtual reality based on all of the most famous film noir movies. The author displayed a knack for the surreal, his prose was beautiful and his tone distinctly horrific. Newman, a man who was known for books about the genre ("Nightmare Movies: A Critical History of the Horror Film Since 1968") was able to out-write a number of writers in the genre, even when what he was writing wasn't strictly horror.

Imagine then, my joy, when I find not one, but two new books by this British writer. "Bad Dreams" has just been released in the US by Carroll and Graf, and "Jago" is available from some vendors as a UK hardcover. They're certainly both worth looking for, and better yet for horror fans, they're both horror genre novels with the same surreal aspects that made "The Night Mayor" so good.

"Bad Dreams" is very similar to "The Night Mayor", which, given the titles, should not be surprising. One of the aspects that made "The Night Mayor" so entertaining was the author's encyclopedic knowledge of the conventions, characters and makers of film noir. In "Bad Dreams" he displays a similar knowledge of the events and people surrounding the Hollywood HUAC (House Unamerican Activities Commission) hearings of the late fifties that were the culmination of the Red Scare, and combines this knowledge seamlessly with the story of a woman searching for clues to her sister's mysterious suicide.

OK, so the "sibling suicide search" plot is, well, a bit familiar. Newman proves that old adage that a good writer can make any subject, no matter how tired, interesting. As Anne Nielson searches for clues, she finds herself drawn back into the past, to her father's own unfortunate confessions during the HUAC hearings and to the man who was behind McCarthy. Along the way, Newman displays the accuracy of his aim as he takes shots at the pop-culture deviants and drug-deadened depraved who spawned in the rich primordial ooze of London in the 1980's. He also manages to actually scare the reader, as he slides seamlessly into the sick minds of those who feed off of other's weaknesses.

But the real stars of "Bad Dreams" are the HUAC hearings themselves, and the psychic aftereffects they have on those touched by them. In a stunning moment of surreal transition, Anne is drawn into a world created by the monster behind the madness, and forced to face her own heritage. It's one of many memorable moments you'll find in "Bad Dreams".

But wait - there's more. When it comes to British writers other than Clive Barker, the US lags one year or more behind the UK. So while we're seeing "Bad Dreams" for the first time in the US, British readers are lucky enough to have "Jago", Newman's latest novel, on the shelves of their local bookseller. And in many respects, it's especially unfortunate for most US readers, who would do backflips to see this well-wrought British small-town Apocalypse, squarely in the long-novel tradition of Stephen King and Peter Straub. Unlike so many of the "epic" novels that litter horror fans' shelves, "Jago" is a truly satisfying reading experience, building to a climax that will have even the most reticent reader cheering, screaming and shouting out loud.

I have to admit that at first I was suspicious. Unlike "Bad Dreams" and "The Night Mayor", "Jago" lacks a pop-culture kernel around which the story is grown. In straightforward fashion, the players are introduced, and marched towards what at first might seem an obvious fate, a disaster at the rock festival. But as the narrative proceeds, Newman starts introducing a history of the village in "Interludes" that count down towards "Interlude Zero" at the end of the novel. As he does so, characters past and present begin to click together in a large, multi-layered mosaic that offers a unique point-of-view on events in the present. It doesn't hurt that Newman is a master of the surreal, edging the characters and the readers towards a world built from the imagination and not dirt and blood.

Like fellow British writer Brian Lumley, Newman has a fine time conjuring the world of ESPionage, represented in this novel by Susan Character and James Lytton. They are sent in to keep watch on Anthony Jago, a powerful esper who has founded the Agapemone, a new Christian cult, one based on a historical model that has been thoroughly researched by Newman, even the "Great Manifestation", which will stick in most readers minds long after the novel is finished.

Yes, it's true, "Jago" does occasionally start to seem like a Quatermass movie ("5 Million Years To Earth" being the prime example), with crowds of people fleeing a well-described disaster, but in all fairness, it only does so after the characters start thinking about Quatermass movies. The bottom line, however, is that it pays off, it satisfies, it thrills and delights with that textured reality that only British writers seem to be able to bring off with any degree of success. Between "Bad Dreams" and "Jago", Kim Newman has positioned himself as one of the most exciting writers to come out of England since Clive Barker.