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The Dust of Wonderland / Lee Thomas

thdust01-sm.jpgAlyson Books / August 2007
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

The past’s influence on the present is an enduring theme in literature and the arts in general. For some, the past is a lifeline that helps them make it through the challenges of the present and onward toward the promise of a future. For others, like the protagonist in Lee Thomas’ The Dust of Wonderland, memory is a disease that infects the present and threatens the very concept of a future. In his stellar third novel, Thomas personifies the memories of the past in the images of dust:

Always there, history, like dust, frosted the present. It could be wiped away, scrubbed, and for a long time forgotten, but it always returned, settling on life’s ornamentation. If left unchecked it grew thick and opaque, covering all that might be with the filth of what had already come to pass.

Ken Nicholson is a man running from his memories, haunted by the events of the past during which questioned sexuality and the hedonistic pursuits of youth combined to lure him into the web of a seductive club called Wonderland and the seemingly unending clutches of its proprietor, the enigmatic Travis Brugier. Years after Wonderland and its owner came to a violent end, Nicholson fled his New Orleans home, plagued by terrifying hallucinations that play out like waking nightmares. But despite the physical distance he puts between himself and his nagging past, he is summoned home by his ex-wife when his son is viciously attacked. Dust tells the story of Nicholson’s homecoming during which he must confront the mistakes of his past while doing battle with a cunning evil he thought long dead in order to protect his loved one’s and his own sanity.

Thomas fashions a classic ghost story, with enough twists and turns to qualify Dust as part mystery, and strong characterizations that power the narrative forward like a solid psychological thriller. It’s often tricky business when writers blend genres, but Thomas pulls off his ambitious narrative undertaking so well here that the lines between supernatural ghost story, psychological drama, and suspense thriller are marvelously blurred – ultimately creating a wholly satisfying reading experience. He sets his story against the richly atmospheric backdrop of New Orleans - overplayed and clichéd in the hands of lesser writers - in which the fabled French Quarter and the bars of Bourbon Street come alive as secondary characters yet never overshadow. Not since Christopher Rice’s gothic gay coming-of-age tale, A Density of Souls, has a novel so seamlessly integrated the New Orleans mystique or so perfectly captured the dichotomous melancholy and pure, hedonistic charisma of the region.

The key strength in Dust is the author’s masterful use of characterization to create layers of internal and external conflicts for his players, at once humanizing them and investing the reader in their struggles. Nicholson, in particular, is a marvelously flawed creation, the embodiment of an entire generation of gay men for whom Stonewall came too late to save them from having to travel the heterosexual highway before realizing that they had missed their homosexual exit. In Nicholson, readers are made acutely aware of his struggle toward self-acceptance and how real and very difficult that struggle to reconcile the divergent aspects of family, friends, and faith can be. Nowhere in Dust is this recurring idea of the sheer messiness of the human condition more brilliantly captured than in the scene in which Nicholson stumbles upon the cathedral in which his severely injured son was to have been married:

After several minutes of uncertainty, looking into the vast and ornate temple, Ken left the church. He was being foolish, ridiculous, and desperate. He felt weak and hated himself for it. How many of his friends had he watched in their last moments of life, friends who had despised the intolerant religions of their birth, turn back to inefficient faiths? People needed their gods, he knew, and Ken wished he had found one to believe in so his prayers wouldn’t feel like the ramblings of a hypocrite, but he wasn’t going to indulge in foxhole Christianity. Not yet. Such a turn would mean all other hope was lost.

Thomas is one of a newer crop of horror writers whose writing clearly seeks to transcend the limits of a genre frequently dismissed as disposable and criticized for its excessive indulgences in violence and bloodshed that (sadly) often forsake narrative structure, mood and nuance. Thomas’ rich prose harkens back to the moodier works of Straub’s Shadowland or King’s Dolores Claiborne, while reflecting this newer and welcome trend toward literary horror from the likes of newcomers like Sarah Langan and Alexandra Sokoloff. Thomas demonstrates time and again throughout Dust that true horror need not be visceral to get under one’s skin:

How long he stood in front of the gate to Wonderland Ken couldn’t say, but he found himself terrified by the place. Like a wasp’s nest, this structure and its grounds had served as a shelter for vicious and poisonous things. History and the disease of memory emanated from the decimated structure. Windows, filthy and dark, played the films of history; they showed a magnificent courtyard and bubbling fountain, and they harbored a unique master with incomprehensible power. Ken remembered numerous wonders, numerous pleasures and a single atrocity in which four children had battled for their lives. A soft bed spoke words of confused sensuality. Hallways led visitors through priceless ornamentation. Wandering these halls were the ghosts of children who were lost in their pursuit of happiness as they served their benefactor. All was brilliant light. All was unfathomable darkness. All was fractured light. All was a story.

And, like the best supernatural horror writers, Thomas ably conveys the paranormal without getting bogged down in over-explanation or talking down to his audience. In getting across the essence of the horrifying mind control games that plague the central characters, Thomas conveys this rather abstract concept through simple dialogue between the characters. When one character likens their psychic torture to being caught in “ …a mind fuck…a virtual reality game without an Off switch ” the audience understands it.

At the core of all great stories is the human condition and our endless attempts to quantify, qualify, and question it. In The Dust of Wonderland, Thomas explores that totality of the human experience like a master painter, first with broad strokes to color the palate then with a fine-point brush to bring forth the depth and detail. While dodging the literary snowballs that Thomas skillfully laces with the genuine chills of an old-fashioned ghost story and hurls liberally throughout, readers will be ensnared in the intricate web of humanity he casts out over his characters, caught blissfully unaware by this dazzling portrait of human hope and heartbreak.

Purchase Lee Thomas' The Dust of Wonderland

Posted on Sunday, October 14, 2007 at 07:08AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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