I am a huge fan of Amanda Downum’s Necromancer Chronicles, and I have to confess that I was more than a bit disappointed to learn that her new novel, Dreams of Shreds and Tatters, was not part of that series (and I still hope that she’ll get the chance to continue it one day). That disappointment, however, did not even survive the five or so pages of the Prologue; by then I was totally gripped by what turned out another brilliant novel by that author (who is on her way of becoming one of my favourite writers of speculative fiction).
While the Necromancer Chronicles were Second World Fantasy, her new novel belongs unambiguously to the horror genre; in fact it places itself firmly in a certain tradition by incorporating numerous references to Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, which – among others – greatly influenced H.P. Lovecraft. And there is something quite old-fashioned about Dreams of Shreds and Tatters in the way Downum deftly builds an atmosphere of looming dread, just a few wispy strands of fog barely above ground level at first, but slowly and ineluctably rising higher and higher, until the characters of the novel (not to mention its readers) find themselves entirely caught up in an alien, unutterable horror,manipulated by forces far beyond human knowledge and experience for inscrutable purposes.
But Dreams of Shreds and Tatters is not just a nostalgic excursion into retroland, but updates the supernatural horror for contemporary sensibilities – there are zombies and the occasional action scene and, more importantly, among Downum’s protagonists are people of colour, queers and of course women with agency. All of which places the novel into another, more colourful horror tradition, namely of the early Clive Barker and Caitlín R. Kiernan, the first for his vivid, bizarre imagination, the second for replacing the usually rather bland protagonists of classic weird fiction with credible, interesting characters.
If all of this makes Dreams of Shreds and Tatters sound somewhat less than original, then this is not quite untrue – but lack of originality is, I am quite confident, fully intended by the author. The novel is a deliberate weaving-together of two quite disparate strands of tradition in horror fiction, and Amanda Downum purposely plays with elements from both these traditions making this, if you want, a postmodern horror novel. But it’s not really self-referential games Downums is interested in – underneath the brightly polished brilliance of the writing and the dazzling display of bizarre creatures, Dreams of Shreds and Tatters is at its heart a character-driven novel and the literary and imaginative fireworks it burns have in the end as its main purpose to illuminate the people populating the world Amanda Downum has created. She presents the reader with a variety of viewpoints most of them, in keeping with Chamber’s The King in Yellow, artists with of a somewhat decadent inclination. Something I particularly loved is how, although we learn a lot about those characters, really none of them is made totally transparent – they all keep some of their secrets, and this opacity makes them more substantial, gives them a certain weight and allows them retain their mystery and likely to occupy the reader’s mind even after finishing the book.
I’m still hoping for more Necromancer Chronicles, but now I’m hoping for a sequel to Dreams of Shreds and Tatters, too (and there are some hints as to wider conflicts of which events playing out in this novel may be a part… so there is hope). Or really, anything Amanda Downum may want to write next.