I hadn’t really pinpointed the thing that most frightens me when I started this book. Sure, had you asked, I could rattle off a list of the usual that have been known to make my blood pressure go up, but I would have done it with the off-handed attitude of someone who has spent thousands of hours digesting the real and imagined terrors of the world and come out the other end a lover of the horror genre.
But no longer. Thanks to Mark Taylor’s newest book I can now clearly answer the question of what scares me in great detail.
More on that later.
A Night at the Dream Theater takes place in a sci-fi/parallel future world where worth is determined by employment. Without a job a person is instantly without a home, money, or protection.
We follow Leander, a who loses his job when he offers to share his lunch with a fellow employee. After trying unsuccessfully to receive help from friends and family, Leander is forced to barter his few worldly possessions to sleep in a hostel while he tries to find work.
It’s there that his new friend, Charles (Chimp for short), tells him that the fully immersive entertainment company Total Entertainment has been known to hire almost anyone, and that’s where he’s headed.
After a bit more debating, Leander goes to TE. He is hired right away and ushered into a gigantic ecosystem of work spaces, living quarters, dining halls, and recreation centers. Working at TE means living your whole life there as well–it’s in the contract.
It turns out that TE creates their fully immersive experiences by harvesting the dreams of employees that they call designers or “Stims.” When a new employee is taken in, they are given a sort of dream test. The type of dream they have determines what type of dreams they will have to create every day at work. There are science fiction dreamers called “Heinlein” and romantics called “Darcy,” and, of course, there are “Adult” Stims that all seem to be a bit unstable.
Leander takes the test. He has a nightmare. He joins Consternation.
From there the reader is treated to a sickening totalitarian world where time means little and reality is indeterminate. When is Leander dreaming and when is he awake? What is reality and what is constructed terror? What does it mean to get “promoted?” And how does he get out?
This is a fantastically sadistic read written by an author who doesn’t shy away from torturing his characters, which, thanks to the inherent dream element, is taken to the extreme in every direction.
Both the tone and subject matter reminded me of the Channel 4/Netflix show Black Mirror. The blend of near-future technology and human perversity is at the center of all of the best episodes, and the same thing is on display here. It’s precisely that combination that helped me come to my epiphany. What scares me the most? Helplessness.
Monsters, ghosts, masked killers, bring ‘em on. If the hero even has a chance of fighting back, I won’t be scared. But nothing leaves me feeling sicker than stories about people that have horrible things done to them with nothing they can do about it.
This is complimented by the tone of hopelessness Taylor weaves into every chapter. The reader hopes that Leander will be able to discover the answers to the mysteries around him and eventually escape his hellish experience, but you can’t help listening to the sick feeling in the pit of your stomach that says, “No matter how he succeeds, he’s going to fail, too.”
And that’s what sets this novel apart from the pack. The story displays every type of evil imaginable from bloody torture to psychological terror, and yet those are simply symptoms. The true horror, the novel suggests, is that the characters are subservient to a rigid and uncaring system.
This novel succeeds for many reasons, but one that can not be overlooked is Taylor’s skill as a writer. Conveying a story about the blurring of reality and dreams requires not only a firm knowledge of your story’s trajectory but a mastery of craft. Taylor delivers on all accounts.
As might be expected from a novel of this kind, I was left with some questions.
There is another point-of-view character named Damian, an affluent man who is addicted to TE’s product. I was a bit confused by this character because he is only seen three times. I have one theory on why he is there (sorry, can’t say, spoilers), but overall his inclusion was distracting to me. I kept wondering when he would become a larger part of the narrative, which ultimately didn’t happen.
This leads into the other question I think is worth mentioning. It’s clear that the novel is meant to make the reader question reality, but I have to admit that I was left a bit miffed by the ending. There is a poetic, cyclical feel to the final moments, but I’m not actually sure I understand what happened; however, with a book like this, a certain amount of ambiguity should be expected.
This ambiguity is exactly why you should read this book. No two readers will experience the same narrative; just like no two dreamers will have the same dream. Everything is up to interpretation, making this an excellent book to read, revisit, and share with friends.
A Night in the Dream Theater is a dark-but-delightful sci-fi/horror novel that will keep you engaged while you question the reality of everything. I highly recommend this it .
Get your copy right here.