By Jon Manchip White (Ace; 1981)
An interesting entry in the dream craze of the eighties, when it seemed every other horror-themed book and movie involved dreams. That explains why DEATH BY DREAMING, despite a plethora of enthusiastic critical notices, got lost in the shuffle and is all-but forgotten today. It deserves to be rediscovered.
It’s an ingeniously constructed account centered on a futuristic dream therapy clinic. The place was created by a scientist named Paul, who is using his psychically endowed wife Helen to cure peoples’ neuroses by sending her into their dreams and righting wrongs therein. Helen was once the lover of Robert, the protagonist, who as the book opens is summoned to the dream lab on urgent business.
That business, it turns out, involves the Dutchman, a wealthy industrialist caught up in a terrifying dream from which he can’t awake. Helen has been sent in to bring him out but is now trapped in the dream world herself. This leaves Robert, whose consciousness is injected into the dream to rescue the other two.
What makes this tale so oddly compelling is the way it’s told in reverse chronological order. We’re immediately thrust into the dream in which Robert and Helen are trapped, a dark, ever-shifting universe of jagged cliffs, scattered bones, exposed organs and marauding subhuman invaders, with the details of the narrative doled out over the course of the book.
The dream is well described, and, unlike many attempts at rendering the workings of the subconscious in prose, actually feels dreamlike. This isn’t an entirely good thing, alas, because as we all know there are few things duller than listening to the particulars of somebody else’s dreams. But the book works because of the gradually revealed story, which grows increasingly urgent until an unexpected crisis occurs. By that point, however, the line between dream and reality has become thoroughly blurred…which seems to be the author’s primary intent.
Jon Manchip White has written many unique thrillers over the years (NIGHTCLIMBER, THE GAME OF TROY), but none wilder than DEATH BY DREAMING, which melds undiluted surrealism and eccentric adventure into an intriguing and wholly original mix. I’d strongly advise tracking this obscure book down–you won’t be disappointed.