We all know nightmares are frightening places to be.
Which is waking from them, even if it is with a scream and a momentarily debilitating loss of certainty about where and who we are, is always a sweet and blessed, reality-embracing relief.
But if your nightmares are the same each and every night, and begin to progressively bleed into your waking hours until telling the difference between nightmares and reality becomes an almost impossible task?
That’s the unenviable state of being confronting Winslow, the protagonist of Nathan Edmondson’s Dream Merchant, a kid who, adopted into an unloving home where he doesn’t feel even remotely welcome (understandably this does his head in since surely if you adopt a kid, you must really want them? But it seems not, in his case), finds his dreaming state increasingly crowded out his day-to-day life until the two are so intertwined that he ends up in a mental hospital.
That in itself in a horrible thing but even more worryingly is when aliens appear in his nightmare – he is always alone on an (admittedly gorgeously rendered; the artwork by Konstantin Novosadov is luscious and almost movie-quality in its scope and vivacity) alien desert planet that has clearly seen better days – and attempt to dissolve his memories.
In essence, take away these memories.
You’d think he’d be delighted but something tells him that the presence of these hooded, malevolent beings, who seem to be able to move at all through and manipulate his subconscious, is a threat, not just to him but all of humanity, since he appears to be the only person who possesses the memories his pursuers are so desperate to erase.
As thrilling premises go, this is right up there with the best.
It pivots rather cleverly on the age-old unsettling idea that what we perceive may not be the truth of things and that rather than being mentally compromised in some way, that Winslow may in fact be the sanest and most necessary person on planet earth.
Adding to the destablising sensation that what he thinks is true may not be at all, is the fact these beings, whoever they may be, seem able to deep dive and play around in the very essence of who he is as a person.
Even in an age where social media has effectively abrogated any real semblance of privacy, this is an horrifically arresting thought and one that powers Winslow, and his accomplice Anne, who springs him from the mental clinic, through a series of ever-escalating, ever more weird, and highly unnerving series of events where the very fate of the world hangs in the balance.
Makes the nightmare almost look like an appealing prospect right?
The narrative, for the most part, matches the darkly foreboding nature of the premise.
Winslow is on the run from beings who mean him and humanity great harm – who they are and why they have such a vested interest in humanity is best left to the reading – and it’s an edge-of-the-seat ride through an ever more surreal landscape where reality increasingly becomes a rubber, high-questionable, concept.
The only problem with Dream Merchant is that for all its understandable exposition, which isn’t too forced or clunky and which largely melds seamlessly with the ever-gathering fast-forward momentum of the story, it often skips what feels like key parts of the story, in much the same way that IKEA how-to-assemble instruction booklet drawings often omit important transitions.
It’s all done, you suspect, in the service of the dream-like storytelling which is as much thriller as it is ruminative philosophising, but it means that there are times, almost too many, where you are left wondering what the hell just happened and have to go back to make sense of it all.
They’re not debilitating jumps and the narrative skips along merrily even so, but the jarring of these breaks does take you out of the story to the point where reading it can become a little bit of a stop-start affair.
The protagonist too is a little frustrating at times.
You can appreciate that someone who has suffered through unending living nightmares, mental hospital stays and abysmal family life may have some issues embracing a saviour-of-humanity type destiny.
But the fact that Winslow seems to back step into repeated crises of confidence, failing to make any real progress until the final, well-executed act, feels like narrative padding more than elegantly progressive storytelling.
It’s not a fatal flaw and by and large, Dream Merchant is a thrilling , white knuckle ride through the depths of one man’s subconscious, which comes alive in vivid, heartstopping detail thanks to its graphic, colourful and utterly immersive artwork.
Given the story switches from reality to dreams and nightmares, frequently landing somewhere in the muddy, unsettling middle, the artwork plays a critical role, not only establishing where we are but why we are and bringing the dream sequences alive in brilliantly-alive detail.
Dream Merchant is freaky and scary and unnerving but it is also life-affirming and hopeful, asserting that even when the threat seems unknowable and unchallengable, that there is a way to fight back even it costs everything.