Sunday, May 3, 2009

Review: Shane Briant's WORST NIGHTMARES

I am a bit funny when it comes to horror and Science Fiction. I’d rave on how much I love both genres, but as a rule prefer watching a horror movie to reading a horror novel, though on the other hand prefer Science Fiction novels to movies.

There are of course exceptions in both cases. There are Sci Fi movies I truly love (Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green) and there are of course horror novels I really dig. I will never forget the day when I first discovered James Herbert’s Rats: Started reading it in the morning and was finished in the early afternoon and just when I snapped the book shut I was so immersed in the imagery that a phone call I received that very moment – remember those very loud, shrill ringing house phones that everyone then had – nearly gave me a heart attack.

I do like Guy N Smith - though that could have more to do with my eternal love for 1960s/70s style pulp fiction paperbacks – but as a general rule of thumb find that I prefer thought provoking Sci Fi in writing to most of the brainless movies that have overtaken the genre since Star Wars first came out and reversely cherish visceral, moody and most importantly visual horror to the one found between the pages of a paperback. Stephen King? Dean Koontz? Yep, tried them, did not dislike them, but can’t say that any of their stuff really had me hooked.

So when I first heard that Hammer star Shane Briant is due to release a new horror novel, Worst Nightmares, I was a bit sceptical. I so wanted to like it just because it was by him. And when I then received an advance copy I truly hoped that this was going to be something I could recommend as I would not want to praise it just because it arrived for free on my doorsteps, but would also hate to slate it as this appears to be a book that is very dear and close to Briant’s heart and obviously means a lot to him.

I shouldn’t have worried.

Worst Nightmares is a keeper.

Even though this is advertised as Shane Briant’s debut novel, it would be more correct to say that this is his first big international publication. He had previously published five other novels in Australia that never really saw a wider release. Even though I have yet to come across any of those, what little I know of them sounds as if they’d be exactly my cup of tea.

Worst Nightmares focuses on Dermot Nolan, a famous, award winning novelist with a severe case of writer’s block. Having already spent his considerable advance, one day he gets confronted by a homeless guy who hands him a diary detailing a range of gruesome murders committed by the “Dream Healer”, a mysterious web host who first encourages people to share their worst nightmares with him online (allegedly in the interest of exorcising their fears) and then arranges to stage just those nightmares for the unfortunate victims. These nightmares include the fear of being a quadriplegic torso, of dying of asphyxiation, seeing your loved ones being killed in front of your own eyes, being attacked by scorpions and much more.

Nolan first of all considers this diary to be a work of fiction written by a deranged lunatic looking for attention, though through his own research gradually begins to suspect that there may indeed have been some truth to it. When it appears that the killer may have come to an untimely end himself, Nolan decides to publish an edited version of the manuscript himself and present it as his latest work of fiction, but soon begins to doubt the wisdom of his ways when the Dream Healer appears to stalk again and Nolan himself draws suspicion upon himself due to the similarities between the fictional deaths he described and the corpses that are gradually being discovered.

Worst Nightmares is written in that breathless style that is prevalent with modern blockbuster fiction these days. At 344 pages containing 72 chapters plus a prologue you’re bound to constantly give it “just one more” chapter before you put it down until you realise you’re as hooked on it as on crack cocaine.

Elements of the plot appear to be slightly autobiographical: Shane Briant is a writer writing about a writer. Nolan’s edited version of the diary is set in Australia, Briant’s adopted home country. His agent’s name is Esther Bloom, surely more than just a small Joycean reference given that Briant had at one stage studied law in Dublin’s Trinity College.

The book plays on at least four different levels: We as the readers are reading a) a work of fiction called Worst Nightmares about b) a novel of the same name based on c) the diary of a serial killer and d) his series of murders.

The book is clever without being pretentious. Based on quite a unique, interesting and truly 21st century idea we get immersed in a very cinematic style of writing that sucks you right in and won’t let you go until you have reached the final page. It is therefore little surprise that Lance Henriksen, Greg Kinnear, Bridget Moynahan and Michael Vartan are apparently in talks to star in the film version of Worst Nightmares though I could also envisage that the book would make a great Dexter style TV series.

Whereas the first half of the novel is very much focused on the Dream Healer’s killing spree and Nolan’s research into the missing persons, in the second half the focus changes slightly to a more mystery based hunt for the real killer. If I had one piece of criticism for this book it is that the identity of the true culprit was probably not quite as surprising as it should have been, but then again Worst Nightmares is not meant to be a classic Whodunnit but a terrifying thrill ride and what it may have been lacking in the ultimate reveal it more than makes up in the shocks along the way. In actual fact the final fate of one of the characters is of a morbid ingeniousness that will not easily be forgotten.

The end also sets itself up nicely for a follow-up and I understand that a sequel has already been written.

So did I end up reading Worst Nightmares in one go? No, it took me two attempts as real life came in the way after I first approached it. The second time round, however, I had all the time in the world and - try as hard as I wanted – couldn’t keep it down until I was completely through at 3:00 a.m. in the morning. Needless to say when I finally crawled up to bed I had to answer a couple of uneasy questions from my girlfriend as to what I was doing up so late? Was I watching porn on the net? (As if!)

But all of it was worth it. So go ahead: Pretend that you’re having on online affair with a Dream Healer, but order the book for a truly thrilling ride through your Worst Nightmares.

1 comment:

Max the drunken severed head said...

I enjoyed your review and largely agree with it. My own review, ad an audio interview with Shane Briant can be found at my own blog, The Drunken Severed Head.