Many writers have tried to capture the essence of nightmares in prose. Many have failed. This often has less to do with the skill of the writer than with the nature of prose itself. In its structured, ordered, and linear way of telling a story, it seems somewhat antithetical to the way that dreams actually work. Artists have had greater success translating nightmares into reality in the more visual mediums of paintings and films, and poets have sometimes achieved it with their less structured use of language. Prose writers at their best have managed it in the short form -- Kafka's "Metamorphosis" is the obvious example. But success has remained elusive for the novelist.
This is why 81 Nightmares, the debut novel of Mark William Lindberg, is such an unexpected delight. It's one of the very few examples of a story that actually manages to sustain the impressionistic dreamlike state of fractured prose over the course of an entire book but also manages to be readable. Because of the stylistic departure from more traditional storytelling that this requires, it could have been a laborious task to plod through these pages, but Lindberg manages to give the story a sense of urgency that propels the reader through to the end with constant, if not pleasant, momentum.
Think of the style as sort of a bad dream that Palahniuk had after reading Kafka, but without the feelings of annoyance and frustration I just felt at myself for typing that sentence. The skewed perspective of the novel -- something I think of as a first person fish-eyed lens -- creates a sense of claustrophobia and removes any ability the reader has to trust the truth of what's going on. It feels like walking down an empty hospital hallway in the middle of the night during a bad acid trip -- and as a horror fan I mean this as the highest compliment. This book is one of the few works of recent fiction that is truly frightening.
The surrealist (that's a lazy word to use here, but it applies, I promise) quality of each chapter, and the way each one starts somewhat mundane and then seems to melt away into madness, creates an interesting sensation of feeling almost desperate for any peek outside of the nightmare, any glimpse into Jay's ordinary waking world and what's going on that it keeps the novel propelling forward when otherwise the reader might be overwhelmed with scene after scene of nonsensical chaos.
Lindberg, sparingly and with a very deft hand, makes use of the tricky literary tool of repetition to construct some of Jay's nightmares. In the wrong hands this could have been disastrous -- it can be very annoying to read when an unskilled writer does it. But knowing when and where to get Jay stuck on a loop and when to move the story forward manages to convey the feel of being caught in a horrible, repetitious night of recurring nightmares better than any novel I've ever read.
Because of all this, 81 Nightmares can be a somewhat challenging read -- it's not a "warm" horror novel in the way that Stephen King or Peter Straub might have written it (it's also about 600 pages shorter). But there is a heart and humanity underneath its bleak and unforgiving surface. The novel has underlying themes of the anxiety that surrounds gender, sexuality, family, relationships, and the right to self identify. It actually captures what it's like to feel anxiety in a very powerful way that managed to surprise me even though I'm one of the most jaded readers alive. The symbols of these anxieties lend themselves well to the nightmare dreamscape, and certain images -- composite lurking monsters of mangled meat, duplicate "wrong" versions of trusted loved ones, the feeling of struggling and drowning in liquid that somehow seems to thicken into gel -- are all things I've vaguely experienced on some peripheral level of my consciousness, and are all depicted here by Lindberg in a very skilled and memorable way.
81 Nightmares is a book that succeeds in every way that a good horror novel should. And I walk away from it with a greater sense of appreciation for the dark things that the human mind can create to imprison itself. Like with all nightmares, I woke from this book exhausted, stressed out, frightened, with a sense of alienating loneliness...but also with a sense of relief at being back on solid ground and a feeling of exhilaration at having survived something dangerous. This book is a gift for horror fans, and I await Mark's next novel with great anticipation -- and trepidation. Rating: A
81 Nightmares is available now: http://www.amazon.com/Mark-William-Lindberg/e/B00VCKBIL2/ref=ntt_athr_dp...