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Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Along the rear dust jacket of Worst Nightmares is a band that boldly proclaims actor-turned-novelist Shane Briant the "new master of horror." Though certainly hyperbolic, the claim isn't too far off. While the venerable Stephen King has long reigned over horror fiction with a satisfying blend of psychology and monsters from beyond the grave, Shane Briant's debut novel offers terror rooted in realism that stands proudly alongside psychological thrillers in the vein of Silence of the Lambs.
Worst Nightmares follows Dermot Nolan, a Booker award-winning author desperate to write his way out of an eighteen-month creative slump. His lucrative advance is spent, his wife is desperate for babies, and his constant phone calls are split between creditors and his agent, who is justifiably anxious to see a page count that warrants an advance of $500,000. When a homeless man delivers a hand-written manuscript detailing the gruesome exploits of a serial killer to his mailbox, Dermot comes to entertain the idea of converting the concept into his next blockbuster.
Worst Nightmare's early chapters alternate between Dermot's struggle to meet personal and professional demands, and gripping scenes of torture at the hands of a serial killer who brings to life the phobias of his victims. One character who suffers from a fear of heights is forced to make a choice between jumping out of a seventeen-story window or being torn to shreds by Rottweilers. Another entry follows an agoraphobic man who is chained to the sun-baked ground of the wide-open desert without sustenance.
These chapters establish an antagonist who is terrifying due to the psychopathic tendencies that comprise the character, as well as the genuine phobias used as methods of execution. Briant's villain is intense, psychological, and psychopathic. Any mention of or appearance by the killer will be met with apprehension not because he is some shambling undead horror that can be safely locked away in the world of fantasy, but because of the reality from which the character is born.
The narrative's initially gripping pace accelerates chapter by chapter, taking readers on an intense ride with characters that are realistically flawed. Dermot initially rejects the notion of transforming the macabre diary he found in his mailbox into a mainstream novel because he feels producing such tripe would be beneath him, a prestigious award-winning novelist. His pride leaves him blind to the web being wound around him, and will often instigate a burning desire within readers to see the egocentric protagonist receive his just desserts.
Smugness and self-importance aside, Briant also successfully makes Dermot relatable. In the process of investigating the memoir's meticulously detailed killings, Dermot realizes that the deaths are fact instead of fiction. Despite knowing that reporting his findings to authorities would start the process of bringing closure to victims' families, the pressures on Dermot slowly overtake his morals. Should he help bring peace to deserving families, or should he steel himself to moral concerns and write a book that will save Dermot from personal and professional ruin? The decision he makes is one that not many could honestly say they wouldn't make as well, even though the pitfalls that stem from it are many.
Briant is as meticulous in charting his narrative as his antagonist is in his executions. It is the blistering and intelligent pace that makes Worst Nightmares a spectacular page-turner while unfortunately making its conclusion somewhat disappointing. Hints regarding the killer's identity are scattered liberally throughout the tale--so much so that the killer's unmasking is more of an anticlimactic fizzle than a shocking revelation. Additionally, many readers will be able to guess the killer's motivation early on due to a jarringly placed detail rather than clever deduction, leaving only a few blanks for the villain to fill in during his big reveal speech.
Those flaws aside, Worst Nightmares is an excellent story that emphasizes the journey rather than the destination. Said journey has a few bumps, but the road is otherwise smooth and clear for Briant to take you on a thrilling and suspenseful ride. Those looking for a book that will keep them reading late into the night, knowing full well that they will inevitably have to turn off the lamp and make their way through darkened hallways into their shadowy bedroom, should certainly take the plunge.
12:01 AM | Posted by Fantasy Book Critic | | Edit Post