From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Book Review: Worst Nightmares

Dermot Nolan is an author with a problem. He is an award-winning, best-selling writer who has completely run out of ideas. He has already spent the million-dollar advance on his next book, he’s on the verge of bankruptcy, his agent is breathing down his neck because his publisher is breathing down hers. His long-suffering wife, Neela, wants a baby he’s not ready to give her. Nolan needs a success not only to save his career but also his marriage.

Then a stranger hands him a manuscript, the diary of the “Dream Healer,” a serial killer who uses a website to get people to reveal their worst nightmares to him. Then he kills them, staging their deaths with his victims’ worst fears. Nolan is put off by the text. He writes literature, not potboilers. But once Neela starts reading, she can’t put it down, drawn in by the visceral power of the events described.

With Neela’s prompting, Nolan decides to plagiarize the manuscript. His agent won’t argue with commercial success, which he can then use to write what he wants to write. There is only one problem. When he investigates the scenes described in the diary, Nolan becomes more and more convinced that the manuscript is not a work of fiction as he had thought, but the writing of a real serial killer. Nolan decides to publish his plagiarized version of the work anyway, thus plunging himself and those he loves deeper into a nightmare of his own making.

Worst Nightmares is the sixth (more on this number later) novel of Shane Briant. Mr. Briant is a hard-working actor with an impressive list of stage, screen and TV credits. This tells in the staging of the characters and in the settings of the crime scenes in the novel. I find it very easy to imagine the book as a Hollywood movie.

This is not a compliment.

The novel unfortunately feels very same-old, same-old. The writer with debilitating writer’s block. The serial killer using the Internet to find victims. The mysterious phone calls with the husky-voiced stranger on the other end. While the murders themselves might be effectively portrayed on the screen, for me they felt about as scary as one might see on an episode of CSI.

And then there’s the main character. I find it difficult to like or root for Dermot Nolan. He’s responsible for most if not all of his problems before he’s given the manuscript. His own ill-advised actions make a difficult situation even worse. He’s selfish, vain, treats his wife horribly at times. I should also not for the record that I am one of those writers who believes there is no such thing as writer’s block. Nolan is simply so scared he won’t be able to duplicate his past success that he doesn’t try. In this economy, am I supposed to feel sorry for a self-important man who lived beyond his means?

In short, Dermot Nolan is a world-class schmuck. I will grant that there is a compelling quality to Briant’s prose. But it is like watching a train-wreck from a distance. Morbidly interesting, but not something that creates much person involvement.

I have other issues with the story. The psychology of the murderer strikes me as both unrealistic and trite. I was jarred a number of times by rapid changes in point of view, even on a single page. The ending of the novel doesn’t resolve things but just stops the story. I feel that the novel would have been much stronger if Briant had focused on a more sympathetic character, like Neela Nolan. As the work stands, I’m left both underwhelmed and disappointed.

Then there’s the matter of the publicity around the book. I am not at all sure why Worst Nightmares is described as a “first” or “debut” novel. A quick Internet search gives five other novel credits for Briant, others of which are in the thriller genre, so the novel is not even Briant’s first thriller. Perhaps the books is the first Briant wrote but is only now being published. Perhaps the publisher feels novels released in Australia don’t really count. I’m confused.

My advice on Worst Nightmares: Wait for the movie. You’ll enjoy it more. Or at least there’ll be popcorn.

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