John McNee, author of the excellent dieselpunk short story collection Grudge Punk (2012), turns his talents to horror with Prince of Nightmares. With nods to Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft and Wes Craven, this novel shows the greatest horror is the evil that hides within us all. Prince of Nightmares is not a book you want to read right before bed.
The novel is filled with unspeakable terrors and gore, but McNee never loses sight of the importance of character. (Full disclosure: McNee and I previously worked with the same publisher, although I have no connection to the publisher of Prince of Nightmares.) The two protagonists are well-rounded characters whose actions are driven by their motivations; they are not simply along for the horrifying ride.
The first protagonist, Victor Teversham, is a man of great wealth and few scruples. He is struggling with his wife Josephine’s suicide and her troubling suicide note: “God forgive me. I married an evil man.” To add to his vexation, one of her final acts was to make a reservation for her husband in the honeymoon suite of the Ballador House Hotel.
The other protagonist, Harry, is Victor’s “Man Friday.” His job is to get Victor “what he wants, wherever we go, even if it’s hard to get.” Victor’s business dealings have made him plenty of enemies, so many that, “Ideally he’d have an army looking for him twenty-four-seven, but you can’t trust a whole army.” But Victor trusts Harry completely.
The novel begins with Harry dropping Victor off at the Ballador for a three-night stay. He hates to leave his boss alone, but Victor insists. As he leaves, Harry picks up a history of Ballador House. He thus learns about the Ballador’s strange past at the same time Victor discovers just how strange the place really is.
The Ballador is a unique twist on that hoary staple of horror fiction: the haunted house. Instead of ghosts, however, the Ballador is haunted by nightmares. Its lodgers are guaranteed to experience vivid and terrible nightmares. These nightmares feature a “grotesque cavalcade” of Residents: the Drowned Maid, the Crystal Mistress, Black Worm, the Giant, and the dreaded Master of the House.
While most sensible people would avoid nightmares if they could, the Ballador attracts thrill-seeking tourists. These people seek the “nostalgia of terror”—the kind of unreasoning fear they had experienced as children. Paul and Karen are on their seventh stay in an effort to see all of the Residents. Gia, a young French dancer with a flair for dark drama, finds herself inexplicably drawn to Victor. Heinrich is a German man who makes his living as a dominator—“Male dominatrix. You know. Don’t pretend you don’t.”
Victor of course finds out that the Ballador is much more than a tourist attraction. Meanwhile, after having his interest piqued by the history of the Ballador he picked up, Harry investigates further, with particular interest in a four-decade gap in the guidebook’s chronology. What he finds sends him speeding back to the Ballador; but his boss may have stayed one night too many.
Prince of Nightmares is a fast-paced and cinematic horror novel. Rather than relying on shock value, McNee’s horror arises from thrusting interesting characters together in an unsettling setting. These characters face dangers beyond their control, but they are hardly blameless victims. For our nightmares are all in our heads—whom else can we blame for them but ourselves?