October 29th, 2007


The Dust of Wonderland

If I were to tell you that leethomas's The Dust of Wonderland is not only the best thing he's had published to date but one of the best horror novels of the year, you're liable to say, "But aren't Lee and Nick BFF?" Well, as you know, I try not to let friendship affect my reviews. That's not fair to those who take my word on reading recommendations. In fact, sometimes I'm more critical of my friends' works for just that reason.

With that said, I really do think The Dust of Wonderland is one of the best horror novels of the year. Thomas has come lightyears since his impressive Bram Stoker Award-winning first novel Stained to fashion an amazingly well crafted, and amazingly adult, horror novel. Ken Nicholson is one of the most complex protagonists I've read in a while, a man torn between his feelings for the family he left behind and who he truly is. He's also incredibly selfish and more than a little vain. Not enough to turn you off to him, but enough to make him as well rounded as any real-life human being.

Thomas also succeeds in creating a villain, Travis Brugier, who is both evil and sympathetic at the same time. Travis, seen entirely in flashback for reasons that make sense in the context of the story, is more lonely than diabolical, and that's something anyone can relate to. It's just that he's got no problem offing people who stand between him and what he believes will bring him happiness. It's the history and connection between Travis and Ken that makes this novel sing.

All good horror novels need subtext, and there's subtext galore throughout Wonderland: the fluidity of sexuality, especially in Ken, who is gay but was once married and fathered two children, but also in Travis, who is even more fluid in ways I don't want to spoil; how a bad past relationship can create baggage that weighs down a new and better one; and most of all, the tug-of-war between who we are at heart and what we think society expects of us.

I mentioned Ken's vanity earlier, and if there's anything I could criticize about this novel, it's that Thomas makes that vanity warranted, a simple truth instead of a character flaw. It's not enough that Ken thinks everyone wants him -- everyone does want him! Men and women alike "responded powerfully to his appearance," to quote the first chapter. Even his ex-wife Paula still wants him, despite his many betrayals, and is actually turned on by the thought of him with another man. While that can make Paula a gratifyingly complicated character, it's a little over the top, and coupled with Ken being a walking sex magnet, makes it hard for me to suspend my disbelief. Surely someone somewhere does not want to fuck Ken.

A quick word about the production values: Wonderland has got to be one of the best designed trade hardcovers I've seen in a while: colored endpapers, a foil-stamped spine under the attractive dust jacket, and even little fleurs-de-lis as section break markers, tying into the books' New Orleans setting. Bravo, Alyson Books! A lot of other publishers could learn from you!

If you're looking for a good horror novel and are tired of the same-old same-old, I heartily recommend The Dust of Wonderland. It's an original tale of supernatural terror that treats its readers as adults. And yes, it's one of the best of the year.

Up next, the Ellen Datlow-edited anthology Inferno!