The measure of a great horror novel is how much it creeps you out once you put the book down. When you turn the light off do you cower in fear that the book’s serial killer will come in through the window? By that yardstick, Shane Briant’s debut novel, Worst Nightmares is not top-notch terror fiction, but it’s nevertheless a crackling good read.
The central premise of Worst Nightmares is a good one. The twisted, homicidal “Dream Healer” snares his victims via his website (helpfully cross marketed at www.worstnightmares.net ), seducing them into revealing their innermost fears, and then kills them by inflicting their very own nightmares upon them, magnified a hundredfold.
The book (being published today) follows acclaimed author Dermot Nolan who is having massive writer’s block. Nolan lives with his beautiful wife Neela in a decked-out loft in Los Angeles. Having already spent the half-million dollar advance on his next novel, Nolan is desperate for inspiration and suddenly finds it when a gnarled homeless man leaves a crudely handwritten diary - My Worst Nightmares - written by the Dream Healer.
The diary is brutal and sadistic, but Nolan comes to realize that the primal, visceral material could be turned into a bestseller that would instantly solve his monetary problems. Nolan begins to investigate the diary and finds that the scenarios he thought were fictional are accurate, minute-by-minute accounts of a mass murderer’s savage crimes. As Nolan gets drawn deeper and deeper into the Dream Healer’s world, is he the hunter or the hunted?
The novel suffers at times from predictable, trite portrayals. Does Nolan really have to be a Booker prize winner? Does his wife Neela really have to be gorgeous? It feels like the novel too often reads like an over-the-top Hollywood screenplay with the corresponding lack of nuance and character development.
Despite its problems, Worst Nightmares does have some genuinely chilling moments. When Nolan stands before the twin wooden stakes upon which a couple was killed by the Dream Healer, you feel the same queasiness Nolan experiences upon realizing the diary he received is real. There’s also plenty of gore throughout the book to keep blood and guts horror fans happy.
Briant keeps the pace of the book moving along briskly, so the reader doesn’t have much time to focus on the novel’s limitations. While screenplay-like characters may keep the book from reaching great depths, it does serve to keep the action going consistently.
If you’re looking for the next Stephen King, you won’t find it here. But if you want a fun, spooky read to take to the beach this summer, Worst Nightmares fits the bill perfectly.