Book Review: The Broker of Nightmares by Jon Padgett

The Broker of Nightmares is gorgeous, a strong work with which to launch the series, and sets the bar extremely high.”

 

Nightscape Press is a small, independent publisher, set up in 2012 by Author Robert S. Wilson and his wife, Jennifer. Between 2012 and 2015 the press released 24 books, including novels and novellas by the likes of Ed Kurtz, Lisa Mannetti, Rena Mason, Rick Hautala, and many more. They also put out a number of charity anthologies with some of the biggest names in horror therein. After a brief hiatus, the press has returned this year with new vigour and purpose, relaunching with the Tim Waggoner collection, Dark and Distant Voices (reviewed on this very site). The press intends to continue the charity tradition with a new line of novels, and a line of limited edition chapbooks, the latter of which brings us to this review. The first chapbook in the series is by Jon Padgett, acclaimed author of the collection, The Secret of Ventriloquism.

Padgett’s story begins immediately in the examination room of one Doctor Slaw. She is visited by an elderly couple, the Hallstroms, whose accents suggest they hail from somewhere in Eastern Europe. Both seem to have ailments, to be suffering, but it is the vocal and confrontational Yelena who demands relief from her apparent pain. Her partner, Effie, is more apologetic, pleading rather than demanding on her wife’s behalf. Slaw quickly comes to believe Yelena is faking just to feed an addiction, and Effie is her enabler, seeking peace from her wife’s scratchy personality. But when the good doctor tells them to leave, Yelena sends her wife away on a pretext. Once alone, the wily woman offers an exchange for the drugs she seeks; to allow Dr Slaw to dream again. And it’s an exchange that appeals greatly to the medical practitioner…

Padgett powers though his novelette with clear, tight prose, his characters and scenes leaping off the page fully realised and detailed. They live and breathe through their dialogue and actions, giving the story an immediacy that works when the more abstract sections come later. And there are a few. Slaw takes Yelena up on her offer, not really knowing why; pity, or as a means of getting her to leave. But when she does assent, she is violated in a way that elsewhere, might read almost comically; but in Padgett’s hands, carries a deep sense of vulgarity and unease. Thereafter, they become locked in a spiral of need, repulsion, growing addiction … and nightmares. Padgett crafts his story with the ease of a master, the narrative perfectly paced and drawn. Following the opening section, we are given some background information on Slaw—childhood night terrors, and the subsequent repression of dreams, their return at college through narcotics, and then further repression throughout dull adulthood. This information, absolutely necessary to drive the immediate storyline, is delivered with almost dispassionate writing, which serves to underscore, rather than neuter the nightmare images. For this is our first taste of Slaw’s dark visions, and what gruesome, unsettling spectacles they are; unfolding, malleable structures, thin, alien creatures, and doll-like children. It’s a taster for what’s to come in the ensuing tale.

As the nightmares increase and grow worse, as Slaw’s addiction grows and consumes her, as Yelena’s need drives both their requirements, the narrative spirals in towards a looming, dread conclusion. And beneath the compelling grotesquery and clashing characters, run certain thematic threads. The obvious one is that of addiction. Not only an examination of the process of addiction, but also the detrimental effects it can have on their life. As Slaw loses more and more of herself to the grip of her dreams, her life slips away. And the saddest aspect of it all—the saddest aspect of any true addict—is that she does not care. All that remains is the chase of the hit. Her job, her friends, her partner; all eventually fall by the wayside. But more than this, the story looks at how people with extreme, selfish needs manipulate those around them. Yelena browbeats her wife, Effie, forcing her to carry out her will. And Effie is no innocent either, as the hours Slaw spends with Yelena mean peace for tired, weary Effie. Slaw herself can be seen exploiting Yelena for her own needs, both of them fulfilling addict and supplier roles.

But it is the horror and surreal imagery that stand tallest in this. We are dropped right into the midst of Slaw’s visions, as they steadily become darker and more threatening, and more surreal. They also serve to shrivel Slaw’s ability to trust the real world, to know the difference between waking solidity and elastic fantasy. All that exists is need; and when tragedy happens, it pushes her to a final criminal act in order to secure her fix. The novelette ends on a note that is both inevitable and strangely ambiguous and poetic. There is the sense that the escalating, vivid nightmares hold the answer to the person Slaw becomes. That secrets are hidden within their almost cosmic horror sensibilities if only the reader can decipher them. It is a conclusion that satisfies while also causing the reader to yearn for more, as only the best stories can do.

Coming up from the reading of The Broker of Nightmares is, in itself, like waking from a dream. It’s a story rich in detail and imagery, full and descriptive; yet not a word is wasted. Though a paperback copy was not available at the time of review, the PDF has the same content. This includes a number of full colour illustrations by Luke Spooner, paintings that fully complement and enhance the nightmare images. The Broker of Nightmares is gorgeous, a strong work with which to launch the series, and sets the bar extremely high. If the following chapbooks are of a similar, consistent quality, we can only wait in heady anticipation for what is sure to be a very exciting venture by Nightscape Press. One for horror collectors and those who value true craftsmanship in both the book and the content. But hurry; there will only be 100 of the paperbacks printed, all signed and numbered, and it won’t be available again until the eBook next year.

PAUL MICHAELS

 

Publisher: Nightscape Press
Paperback, Limited Edition: 50 (pps)
Release Date: 30 October 2018

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