Jun 12, 2012

My newest author crush: David Nickle

There's a sign on the gate:

You must be this intelligent to enter.

So says the monkey, your highly-trained carnie for this carousel of dreams.


I can't tell you what a relief it is to be confronted with a "horror" author whom I cannot say reminds me of Stephen King. This is nothing against King, mind you; his style is deeply effective, and there is a reason he has earned so many imitators, consciously or not.

How often, however, can you reach into that well before you cry "Enough!"? It's inevitable that all authors will resemble some other writer in overall style, with the unarguable exception of Kurt Vonnegut, and King's style is just simple enough to tempt new authors who cannot see the masterful effort that underlies the words. So when a novelist comes along that is the first in a long while to evoke pleasure of writers past while at the same time breaking though new territory, I take notice. Nick DiChario brought me new Theodore Sturgeon stories long after the old master had passes away. Gemma Files has channelled Clive Barker in her stunning horror westerns. And now, Canadian author David Nickle has gifted me with new Dan Simmons (not that Simmons is done himself).

Not that Simmons is done, he's still going strong, publishing at least one novel every year. Simmons is a maestro of practically every category of fiction, an author at ease in horror (Summer of Night, Song of Kali), historical fiction (Drood, The Terror), crime (Hard Freeze), and science fiction (the immortal Hyperion, among many others). He dances through genres like no one since Joe R. Lansdale (still going as well), and he continually brings a new perspective to every genre he touches.

So, too, does David Nickle, busting through the gate with two (2!) novels from Chizine (best genre publisher working today) that have completely floored me with their verve, originality, and utter command of story. I admit to not having yet read his short story collection Monstrous Affections, but I have no doubt it will continue Nickle's streak. His novel Eutopia is a gloriously original American historical horror, and his follow-up Rasputin's Bastards is a bold and disturbing Russian epic spy thriller that takes drastically disparate elements (there are echoes of James Bond, John le Carré, China Mieville, and Simmons' Carrion Comfort) and mashes them together in a fantastical narrative that crosses POVs and dimensions with an assurance that is staggering.

Have I got your attention yet? Good. Because David Nickle is that good.

Please note: the following comes mostly from memory, as I don't have the books on me at present. So, no quotations.

Eutopia (subtitled A Novel of Terrible Optimism) is ostensibly a historical drama, set in a small isolated mill town in Idaho in 1911. The town, Eliada, is idyllic, with no bars, no vice, and no outward strife. It is, indeed, an experiment in social control, led by a powerful businessman who dreams of his own Utopia. But as must happen in such tales as these, deep evil lies in the woods beyond, evil in unsettlingly lovecraftian forms, evil that recalls the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm at their most grimmest.

Into this simmering tempest Nickle throws a young man who has mysteriously survived a plague, and a black doctor who knows all too well how flawed Eliada really is. As they hurry to understand what is really happening beneath the idyll (shades of David Lynch), Nickle elegantly weaves themes of faith versus science, man versus man, and nature versus all, and no fair telling who wins, if you can call it winning.

As Nickle pulls the strings of his dizzying array of characters, his plot leaps from period western to redneck horror to magic realism, all without stumbling or missing a beat. This is dark, weird fiction that follows a logic all its own, pulling out all the stops in raising the creepy quotient, yet cementing the bizarre goings-on in characters who pull you along.

Rasputin's Bastards is an almost complete about-face (again, shades of Simmons). Nickle now delves into Cold War espionage territory, this time in a tale replete with guns, adventure, and of course, telepathic Russian spies bred in a secret facility. Sent underground after the war ended, the telepaths use their vast powers for their own means, while their young progeny find themselves being diverted against their will to an unusual location.

Rasputin, like Eutopia, is not a novel easy summarized. Nickle seems to delight in keeping the reader off-balance, easily achieved when half the novel is set in various fantastic mindscapes that continually weave in and out of conscious reality, creating a novel wherein the reader is perpetually on edge and unsure exactly where any single point of the narrative is set. If you are looking for an easy read a la James Patterson, stay far away: if you find China Mieville's expert world-building to be enthralling stuff, you'll have quite a time here.

And there are some squid present, in case you get bored.

Look, by now you can tell what kind of books these are, and whether you're interested. Genre fiction will always suffer the sniffs of snobs (lest you think otherwise, I'm a snob too, can't be bothered with romance, and Tolkienesque ogre opuses leave me cold [plus, did you read that Patterson snub in the previous paragraph?]). Nickle isn't writing for the cheap seats; he's unapologetic about writing for the front row, the elites, the ones who "get it."

Get it? Like Simmons, you can't rush headlong in to Nickle's work, you need a base to draw experiences from. Read your King, bone up on your Shelley, devour your Barker and Lovecraft and Poe and Bloch and Howard.

Then, move on up, and know that you've earned your right to take a ride.

So sayeth the monkey.

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