Fiction Review

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Bad dreams make good stories.

By Denise Dumars     April 12, 2000

On the current ballot for the Bram Stoker Award, Douglas Clegg's THE NIGHTMARE CHRONICLES is a collection of horror stories you won't want to miss. Clegg begins the book with what is called a 'frame story,' a common device used in anthologies to bind the tales together. In this book, it's a story of a kidnapping, a sort of Séance-On-A-Wet-Afternoon-type of tale about a strange little boy and his abductors. The child is anything but what he seems, and the thirteen stories in the book are presented as the images he places in the mind of Alice, one of his kidnappers.

Usually, there are highs and lows in anthologies, but this one stands above the rest by having no real lows, while there are several outstanding stories worth exploring (which is not to say that the others aren't excellent as well). The most effective tale in the book is probably 'White Chapel.' While the title might make the reader think of Jack the Ripper, and certainly there is that aspect to the tale, the story is more of a riff on Joseph Conrad. A journalist is on the trail of a mysterious Asian monkey goddess and a Colonel Kurtz-like man who is a local legend--having supposedly killed and skinned dozens of people. 'Y-Cha-Pa,' or what the English colonials call White Chapel, actually means Monkey God Night. What she learns and how her own past figures into the story provide opportunity for character development (Clegg is very much a writer whose stories are character-driven, like the best literary tales). The story has everything a good horror story should have, including some surprises. It's truly about the darkest passions of the human heart.

It's hard to surprise this reviewer, but Clegg has done it in his tale 'I Am Infinite--I Contain Multitudes,' which is, on the surface, a story of a man in a hospital for the criminally insane who is trying to escape. His inmate lover has a particularly horrific fetish, and the man who says he can get him out believes he is God, having been given 'special powers' when fallout from atomic tests reached the hospital in the 1950's. I guarantee you won't see the ending coming.

'Underworld' is a dark tale of a man seeking his dead wife in a most unlikely place in the dark underbelly of New York City. 'Only Connect' is a story that veers over into science fiction as we learn of a man on a train who keeps getting glimpses of another life--and waking up in another person's body. We learn that a covert op is in someway responsible, and that there is a mole in the operation bent on destroying it. It's an elliptical and fascinating tale of bending reality, and its crazy science doesn't seem all that crazy in an age of Philadelphia Experiments and the remote viewing experiments of our military.

'The Night Before Alec Got Married' and 'Oh Rare and Most Exquisite' provide food for thought about the relationship between the sexes. Man's fears and longings for women are explored in these stories, and as in several other tales in this book the 'victims' are often strangely grateful ones. Clegg repeats his thesis that some victims want to be that way, and this revelation increases the horror of the situation; men and women seem to share equal time at being victims in his stories.

Several of the tales also deal with mythology and bizarre religious rituals. Nature in a Clegg tale may or may not be benign, and a small, quiet town or a beautiful garden may be the setting for the ultimate horror. Love and what a person will do to get it, to prove it, or to reclaim it often provides the basis for the horrors of these stories. You never know just what you're getting into in a Douglas Clegg story, but one thing is always true: you're going for wild ride, up that long river, and at the end you can be sure to meet a version of Col. Kurtz.

And isn't that what 'the horror' is really all about, after all? In his Afterword, Clegg gives the reader some insights into the origins of the stories. THE NIGHTMARE CHRONICLES is a collection of character-driven supernatural horror tales that rises far above the competition.

Douglas Clegg, THE NIGHTMARE CHRONICLES, Leisure: $5.50. 360 pages. ISBN 0-8439-4580-X.


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