|I picked up a whole stack of books from Angry Robot's booth at Phoenix Comicon and I knew I had to read this one first because it has a clearly unhinged clown on the cover. In a business suit. It's even dedicated to 'all the coulrophobics out there', which means that my niece sure ain't going to be reading this one.
This particular, clearly unhinged clown is Jinx and he's what this book calls an incubus. That means that he was conjured inadvertently out of nightmare by a young dreamer merely strong enough to bring him to life. In Jinx's case, that dreamer was ten-year-old Audra Hawthorne, now grown up and working, with her clearly unhinged clown sidekick, for the Shadow Watch, a sort of otherworldly police force. Their beat is both our world and the land of Nod, a real and very dangerous place populated for the most part by incubi, who are often far scarier than clowns. Hey, coulrophobics aren't going to be reading to be able to argue.
Initially Audra and Jinx are tasked with stopping a serial killer without a face called Quintus, who has been become a plague in Audra's home town of
. Unfortunately, while they do catch him and set off to take him to the Rookery, the Shadow Watch headquarters in Nod, things don't go quite as expected and he gets away. Trying to catch up with him again isn't an easy task, complicated by their gradual discovery that this case is a much bigger one than it might have initially appeared. Quintus is only one part of a far bigger problem, affecting both worlds.
'Night Terrors' runs 350 pages but it's a quick and easy read that probably helps us temporarily blot out the inherently troublesome concept of applying a set of rules to a setting that's literally conjured out of nightmare. Waggoner has fun defining those rules and many of them help shape his story, but he's only successful as long as he can keep this ride rolling. The moment it starts to slow down, we start to wonder about the logistics of the place and holes begin to appear. He does take the opportunity to explain away some odd departures as merely the characters that were dreamed, but he doesn't delve too far into anything crazy that might break the laws of physics just because some kid dreamed it like that. Of course, that way may lie madness.
His characters are strong and they grow throughout the story, the inevitably fraught relationship between Audra and Jinx evolving because of what they go through. Imagine a 'Nightmare on
' movie where
and Freddy have to team up to solve a mystery. This is that sort of relationship, one formed out of fear but rendered less so only by time. Audra still has many hang-ups about Jinx and that affects their collective ability to function as much as his batshit craziness does.
Another neat touch is that incubi have two different aspects, one for the day and another for the night. The wildly unpredictable lunatic clown is merely Jinx's night aspect; by day he's a polite and caring art lover in a business suit. The difference between aspects is a perpetual joy in this story. I particularly enjoyed the beat up baby-shit-brown Pinto held together by duct tape that transforms into a hot rod hearse called Deathmobile when night falls. Not all of us dream about clowns, after all, and so incubi can be anything.
The story itself proves a capable mystery, albeit one without enough characters or pages to be able to deflect us from the truth for too long. It's really a Hollywood movie of a book, something better enjoyed as a ride than anything of substance to ponder upon intellectually, but it is at least a decent
movie. It's got far too much character for
, however much the finale is tailor-made for him. It would fare better in the hands of someone who doesn't overlook the human element, such as a Joss Whedon.
In fact, all the comparisons that leap to mind come from the world of film and I don't believe that's just because I'm a movie critic. The back cover suggests 'Supernatural' meets 'Men in Black', but I don't see the former in the slightest, perhaps fortunately as I'm not a fan. The 'Men in Black' flavor is everywhere though, Waggoner merely using nightmares rather than aliens. As in 'Men in Black', anything we see may or may not be what we think, as incubi hide in plain sight, with the Shadow Watch patrolling them and M-gineers cleaning up any incursions of Maelstrom energy that would appear anonymous to us.
Instead of 'Supernatural' as an influence, I saw a lot of the insanity that was Toontown in 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?' but phrased in the sort of extremes beyond even what 'Beetlejuice' would have reached if only Tim Burton wasn't saddled with a PG rating. This is a long way from PG, as the scenes in the Circus Psychosis highlight. You're never going to see
produce a scene with a minotaur playing a xylophone built out of demon babies and using a pair of clawhammers as his mallets. Troma would gleefully do it, but they don't have the budget that this would require.
Waggoner is a prolific writer, best known for his Nekropolis books, but with a couple of dozen novels and over a hundred short stories to his name. 'Night Terrors' is his first novel of the Shadow Watch, but a second, 'Dream Stalkers' is due from Angry Robot in November. I'll be very interested to see how far he's able to build on the worlds he created here, now that his lead characters are defined and ready for a hopefully long series. ~~ Hal C F Astell