Considering what an awkward foot Dreams of the Dead by Thomas Randall (Christopher Golden) starts off on, I was pretty surprised when, shortly after beginning, I found myself unable to put it down.
In spite of my overactive imagination, I like something scary once in a while. Poor Thomas Randall was already up against some stiff competition, since only days ago I wheedled my husband into watching Ringu (the Japanese horror film re-made as The Ring) with me. Fortunately, Dreams of the Dead has a lot of its own strengths to carry it.
Kara Harper and her father move to Japan, a sort of long time dream of theirs. There, in her new school, Kara meets fellow outsider (though in a different way) Sakura. Shortly after, she learns that Sakura’s sister, Akane, was murdered months ago — and the murderer was never brought to justice. While Kara is busy struggling to fit in, the school’s most popular students start having nightmares and, eventually, some of them turn up dead themselves. Sakura is convinced that Akane has returned from the grave to take revenge on her murderers — but Kara is having these nightmares as well. Who — or what — is really behind it all?
I wasn’t certain of Kara as a character at first. She felt younger than her supposed sixteen years and I feared this would be another case of “I’m so perfect because I’m smarter and deeper than those shallow popular girls” (not exactly an unusual device in manga and anime). But there’s a turning point early on, where Kara’s father points out that perhaps she’s being a bit catty (with a not-so-subtle “Meow?” that made me laugh). Considering the way most of her new fellow students are treating her, Kara’s attitude here — unrepentant, but willing to admit that yes, she’s being catty — helps to define her as a more realistic and sympathetic character. I find her a little bit inconsistent, especially towards the end, but otherwise she’s easy enough to like.
And she benefits from a pretty good supporting cast, as well. I found her relationship with her father quite wonderful, set up in a way that’s smart and sensitive and makes sense. As well, her dynamic with her two misfit friends — Sakura and Miho — was surprisingly realistic. They actually do things teenage girls do (much to my relief, as too often in fiction when you’re dealing with misfit teens, they tend to scorn the things their peers like to do, as if this somehow makes them better). The popular girls are pretty one-dimensional and stereotypical, almost as if perhaps Mr. Randall has been reading shoujo manga for inspiration, and I wish Kara’s relationship with Hachiro had been more strongly developed. Overall, though, the cast comes together well and works with the story.
I had a lot of fun with the story; as I already mentioned, I found Dreams of the Dead difficult to put to down. Randall uses his pacing well. While the first half of the book isn’t very scary overall, it does set a good stage and allows time for the reader to get to know the characters. The tension really begins to build about midway through, after which point I found myself flipping pages all afternoon. The book does get scary, unsettling even. I’d rather not say too much, except that Randall leans smartly on Japanese myth and legend, using it to shape a fascinating twist in his plot.
Dreams of the Dead had a couple other problems, aside from a slightly rough start. If you don’t have much knowledge of Japanese culture and customs then the explanations probably won’t bog you down much, but for me, I felt a little bit like I was back in Basic Spoken Japanese (except that Randall, fortunately, doesn’t digress and ramble quite as much as my sensei did). Also, I didn’t care much for the nightmare sequences and didn’t find most of them very scary. Which is probably for the best, because I was jumpy enough as it was when I finally put the book down.
Dreams of the Dead definitely fulfilled my scary needs and, happily, it did so without the excessive blood and gore we call horror these days. Between it and Ringu, I’ll probably be good until May rolls around, bringing with it the next book in Thomas Randall’s The Waking: Spirits of the Noh.