Sinister Grin Press
I first encountered author Patrick Lacey when I read and reviewed the novel he collaborated on with Matt Hayward, the slow-burning and creepy as hell Practitioners which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’d also more generally heard Very Good Things about the quality of his horror fiction, with a slow trickle of recommendations on social media, especially through platforms such as Twitter. He had rapidly climbed to the top of my ‘Must Be Read’ list for my blog, and when Sinister Grin Press decided to have a 99p/99c sale for many of their titles during the Halloween period, I decided to stock up on a number of books, including Mr Lacey’s intriguing-sounding Dream Woods. While I was determined to start reading the author’s titles anyway, that cover art immediately drew me in, causing me to ask questions that I knew would only be answered by reading the novel itself. Why is there a run-down theme park which definitely doesn’t look anything like Disneyland, and why is there what appears to be a mascot in the shape of a bear with glowing red eyes and what appears to be blood spattered on its muzzle and fur? Also, is there a reason that the font for the novel title itself looks like it’s been etched in blood in a distinctly sinister fashion? And apart from that excellent piece of cover art by Kelly Martin, the back-cover blurb enticed me yet further: after all, who wouldn’t like the idea of that saccharine pillar of entertainment capitalism, Disneyland (sorry, ‘Dream Woods’) actually being a murder-filled theme park that preys on the victims it draws in?
The central premise for the novel is actually refreshingly simple and non-complex: driving home from work one night, Vince Carter suddenly and unexpectedly sees an advertisement for the titular Dream Woods, a beloved childhood theme park that he had whiled away countless summers at during his youth. He thought it would have been shut down forever, but here’s a roadside advert for it – and it seems like the perfect place to take his family so they can forget about their many troubles for a couple of days. Sure, the park was rumoured to have originally closed down due to murders and cultists and that one boy who fell to his death from Dream Castle; and the advert seems to have a strange, hypnotic effect on him as he drives by, but that’s nothing to worry about! Vince is sure that Dream Woods is exactly what he needs in life right now. To that end he packs up his distinctly dubious family and carts them off to Dream Woods for a long-overdue holiday, certain in his conviction that this is what is needed to bring together an increasingly fractious family.
That family unit is the key to Dream Woods as a novel, with Lacey cleverly making Vince’s interactions with them, and their feelings towards each other in general, the core of the novel. This isn’t just a family dealing with the general strains of being a family in 21st Century America – there are serious, potentially fatal flaws in the family unit, and as the novel progresses Lacey deftly drops more and more hints at the issues poisoning the family and driving them apart despite Vince’s increasingly-desperate attempts to unite them around Dream Woods and its promises. The characters are fantastic pen portraits that are then expanded upon, and Lacey smartly ensures that they’re all sympathetic in some way despite their previous and current actions: he doesn’t fall into the trap of making any one of them irredeemable and therefore the obvious villain of the piece.
The obvious villain is in fact Dream Woods, and the creatures at the centre of it, as hinted by that wonderful cover art. As it initially appears, the theme park is incredibly inviting and looks like the soothing balm that the family so urgently needs; Lacey perfectly nails the slightly saccharine dream that such theme parks promise, especially to families. Because those parks do have a lure, don’t they? A beautiful, alluring surface that seems so attractive for a while – smiles and bright colours and masks and everything looks happy. But after a few days you can see the cracks and repairs needed or the money going out your wallet, and that facade becomes really obvious. But what if you deliberately ignored it, desperately wishing it was just your own personal fantasy? What if a park could feed off of that, mentally and physically? They work on a different reality – quite literally in this case.
It doesn’t take long after entering it for it to become obvious that this is no normal theme park – there’s an inherent sense of wrongness that Lacey obviously delights in creating and slowly dialling up. Lacey’s skill as a horror writer comes to the fore here, and I found myself grimacing slightly every few pages as he introduced some newly terrifying or deeply unsettling element – from the strangely prescient and corpse-like staff members to a delightfully twisted version of a water park ride. Fortunately, we also get the point of view of the individual at the centre of Dream Woods and who has been undertaking the machinations required to get it to reopen after so many years; the isolated figure of The Director is an impressively creepy villain, infused with a real sense of dread and wrongness that is extremely difficult to pull off as well as Lacey does here, ensuring it never descends into clichés.
As the reality behind Dream Woods becomes more and more apparent, and The Director decides that the time is right to unleash his carefully-crafted plans, Lacey unleashes a torrent of blood and gore that works because of the rising sense of disquiet and terror that has been building up for most of the novel, and is all the more enjoyable as a result. This icon of capitalism and the American Dream turns deadly, and allows Lacey to demonstrate his gruesome imagination and perceptiveness that allows him to tap right into the core of what makes these theme parks so appealing, and then twists into something sugary, sharp and utterly terrifying. Dream Woods is a fantastic horror novel with some surprising depths, incredibly dark moments of psychological and cosmic horror, and incisive thoughts on the role of the theme park as a concept. Blend that with a well-executed plot and some excellent characterisation, both in terms of the Carter family and The Director, and you have a first-rate horror novel that deserves to be on the shelf of any discerning fan.