On its surface, Russell James’s Dreamwalker has it all: voodoo magic, dreamworlds aplenty, a nightmare version of Atlantic City, a horribly evil drug lord, and a love story. The novel follows the adventures of Pete Holm, who is lured from his uncomfortable life of a college student into a world of nightmares fueled by the power of the evil voodoo god Cauquemere. With all those elements, it should’ve worked.
Part of why the book didn’t work was the writing, which needed a great deal more finesse. Here’s an example, taken at random:
“Pete reached down below the dishwasher and pulled the full trashcan across the wet tile. He groaned. He should have done this an hour ago when it was half-full. He didn’t enjoy the cross-parking lot drag followed by the Herculean effort to raise the can over the dumpster’s lip. He thought it could qualify as an Olympic event.”
So what we’re looking at is a series of declarative sentences all beginning with the same word. It’s clunky and artless and shows a desire to tell the reader what’s going on rather than showing the reader. Dreamwalker is unfortunately full of such examples. In addition to the inexpert writing, we’re presented with sentences like these:
“Its bellowing’s pitch grew piercing and shrill, sonic steel needles that probed Pete’s.”
“There was already had too much to explain to the drug lord.”
The novel’s editor needed to catch these and many more examples before the book went to print, and didn’t.
Shallow characterization was a more significant flaw. From the protagonist Pete to the antagonist Cauquemere/St. Croix, the characters lacked individuality or anything else that would have made them interesting to read about. Pete suffers from a condition called Visual Processing Disorder, but it doesn’t affect his psyche, nor does it keep him from doing his job as Cauquemere’s enemy. It’s simply a thing that we’re told makes him different. We see the symptoms, but we don’t see what it does to him as a person. St. Croix, a Haitian drug dealer possessed by the evil voodoo god Cauquemere, is just generically evil. Malicious, violent, unpleasant across the board. He’s simply the physical body that the evil Cauquemere inhabits, and there’s no conflict within him about being ridden by a horrible demon-god. Other characters go in an out as clichéd cut-outs: Tyrone, the street-smart black kid caught stealing food to feed his baby sister; Papa D, the Italian restaurant owner with a heart of gold; Reyna, the entirely forgettable love interest. This last character is criminally underdeveloped: she committed suicide to follow her dead sister into Cauquemere’s land of nightmares (but didn’t quite die), and in the end of the novel, she’s trapped in her damaged, comatose body and can only re-enter the land of dreams when Pete goes to sleep. A horrible, disturbing fate that’s passed off as reasonable in the narrative. Rather than explore this, the story just ends.
Despite that much of the action takes place in dreams, there’s no exploration of the subconscious, unconscious, or any element of the human psyche. Dreams just take place in other worlds, and that’s it. When Pete’s dream-mansion is destroyed by Cauquemere, we’re supposed to feel bad about it…but can’t. Because we don’t know how it was built, how personal it is to him, or why it looks the way it does. It’s just a thing he built. In defter hands, the idea of exploring dream realities and how they relate to the personalities of the people dreaming them could have been taken to a more meaningful level. The symbolism of unconscious desires and unaddressed concerns that dreams often contain wasn’t addressed to any significant degree.
Finally, the love story wasn’t given the chance to coalesce, but was instead thrust into the story simply for the sake of having it. Pete’s previous dreams have included Rayna, his dream friend, but without establishing a personal connection through earlier shared experiences, it became hard to believe that they would fall in love as deeply as they did during the events of the novel. He’d apparently been dreaming of her for some time prior to the action, and not once did they fuck or even kiss. Why not? It’s a dream, isn’t it? It was just sort of there as insta-love: a forced, clumsy connection.
Ultimately, Dreamwalker had all the makings of a good book, but failed to weave them together (with apologies to Gary Wright).