OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
The Hollow Boys – by Douglas Smith (Book 1 of The Dream Rider Saga)
Publisher: Spiral Path Books, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2022
Cover Art – by Jeff Brown
The burden of teenage angst is bad enough, but what if you are only able to leave the apartment you live in when you are asleep?
William Dreycott is seventeen years old. He lives and breathes a problem most people would envy. He’s filthy rich and totally unencumbered by parental control as his parents disappeared when he was nine. Individuals loyal to the memory of his parents, and fortunately loyal to him, manage his affairs till he comes of age. In the meantime, his allowance exceeds the budget of many countries, and he is free to spend it on whatever he wishes.
I knew a guy like that, meeting him as a young adult. Fully in control of his life, recognizing no one as his boss, he led a solitary life and suffered from extreme boredom. He could easily surround himself with “friends” and “lovers” for as long as the money lasted, which in his case probably meant for as long as he lived, but he didn’t suffer the role of a walking, talking bank account. Possibly he yearned for genuine friendships and love affairs such as normal, always on the brink of financial disaster, people experience, but in the back of his mind the suspicion it wasn’t his looks or personality that attracted the affection of others must have been omni-present. So, he lived alone and indulged in several harmless but time-consuming hobbies; possibly content, and even happy, but in a low-key manner.
My point is that Will is a credible character. People like him do exist. Further, having experienced the loss of his parents while accompanying them on their expedition in a South American jungle, but so traumatized that he remembers nothing of what transpired, other than the smell of a flower—hence his obsession with collecting rare flowers in the hope he can identify what lingers in his memory and thus pin down the location of the event so that he can send out expeditions searching for his parents—that he cannot leave his apartment, as physical immersion in the outside world paralyses him, leaves him incapable of thought or movement. I suspect that inbuilt paranoia, the core of his trauma, is responsible for this. Whomever is responsible for the fate of his parents could well be hidden within the teeming masses of the common folk outside.
Or maybe he can function only within the familiar confines of his quarters because the rest of the world offers nothing but an escalating crescendo of terrifying possibilities the moment he steps into it. Perhaps his trauma has made him the King of the introverts. Plenty of room for amateur psychologists to play with interpretations, which is a great role to grant the readers and draw them in. In this first volume of the saga, the why and wherefore is never clearly defined, but the consequences are clear. Will is severely handicapped in his ability to interact with the real world except by proxy.
Again, an extreme but credible character. One thinks of Howard Hughes who, by the way, once drove past me in his private bus with jet black windows. I waved, but I don’t know if he waved back. Possibly he was so buried in Kleenex he couldn’t see out, but I digress. Thing is Will knows how to compensate, in that he lives, not in an apartment, but in an apartment skyscraper with each floor devoted to a particular theme, such as a monastery in Tibet, or the landscape found in the “Wizard of Oz,” complete with Yellow Brick Road. Now, this sounds unreal, but having seen snippets of documentaries about the lifestyles of the obscenely rich, I’m not so sure. I mean, if I had unlimited cash, I’d probably build a replica of ancient Rome to scale and using original materials… but that’s just me. The teenage me would have bought out James Warren and given Forry J Ackerman a proper budget for “Famous Monsters of Filmland,” but again, that’s just me. Point is Will’s setup allows the reader to critique his choices in terms of their individual fantasy life, which is a great way of ensuring readers bond with the protagonist.
Even better, Will is a self-made man, in that he conceived a comics character and developed skills as a graphic artist to the point where his ongoing comic book series, “The Dream Rider,” is the top-selling comic book in the industry and a household name in mundane culture. Each issue eagerly awaited by millions. Even I, whose graphic skills climb no higher than the ability to draw lively stick figures, used to dream that dream. It is a common fantasy. So, again, something to appeal to a wide readership.
Are you beginning to get the impression that the character of William Dreycott is carefully crafted to appeal to a YA readership on multiple levels? That is what I am trying to suggest is the case. Such a refreshing contrast to the comment I received back in the 1970s to a novel I had submitted to a mainstream publisher “We don’t like your main character and don’t think anyone else will either.” This is a problem Douglas Smith has skillfully avoided.
But what really opens up this fantasy novel in terms of vicariously sharing the escapades of the protagonist is Will “naturally” evolving into an actual dream rider as he perfects the nature of his graphic art character. This is the equivalent of John Carter taking refuge in a cave, falling asleep, and waking up on Mars. Edgar Rice Burroughs knew he needn’t bother with a realistic mechanism of transfer, all he needed was an excuse to get on with the story. The result was so fascinating to a 1911 audience that only the most literal and pedantic-minded grognard-cretins would bother complaining “Hey, that can’t happen in the real world!” So what? It’s fantasy fiction, an exercise in escapist daydreaming from the mundane world, so of course it isn’t real!
It has always bugged me that some people who read imaginative literature seem compelled to purge it of all imagination and reduce it to a litany of plausible extrapolation barely one step ahead of contemporary science. I mean, how exciting is the prospect “Someday we’ll have lightbulbs 20% more efficient” compared to “What are the consequences of a time machine that craves routine and hates change?” The first is scientifically possible (maybe). The second is ludicrous, but potentially great fun. I’d rather have fun and be entertained, thank you very much. People who complain about spaceships making zoom-zoom noises in the vacuum of space can get stuffed.
Anyway, when Will falls asleep, he enters his dreamworld. So do we all, but in his case he is able to step through doors into other people’s dream worlds. They are normally based in the city they share, but a city altered by the perceptions of the individual dreamers. The most private dream worlds, the ones buried deep in the subconscious, are radically unique. There is logic underpinning the “reality” of the dream world, but dream logic, so circumstances are apt to change in unexpected ways. Further, emotions reign and occasionally manifest in “physical” form, especially the most powerful unleashed emotions, subconscious fears, which Will has to battle every time he sets forth into the dreamworld. Fortunately for him, his own subconscious manifests—when called—as a sarcastic being named “Nyx” who reluctantly offers advice and weapons useful for psychic defence. Over time, Will has developed additional techniques and helpers enabling to cope with the terrors of the dream world. Should threats threaten him beyond his capabilities, he has only to wake up to escape.
So, what does Will do with his “superpower?” Is he the ultimate voyeur, exploring the not-so-hidden desires of helpless sleepers thrashing about in their erotic dreams? The infamous producer/director/script-writer Ed Wood Jr., renowned for his inept but entertaining films, who wrote numerous erotic novellas, earning far more money with those than he ever did from his movies, would have embraced the concept whole-heartedly if he had thought of it. Not Will Dreycott. Being a victim himself, he prowls the dream world for the dreams emitted by young kidnap victims, is able to enter their dream-altered physical location and, once he has awakened, passes on the information to Harry Lyle, a crime journalist who immediately informs the police, but refuses to reveal his source. Children are rescued. The public is grateful to the police, the police are grateful to Harry, and Harry is grateful to Will, but never asks questions because they’ve got a good thing going which benefits everybody, especially the children involved.
All in all, it must be nice going to sleep when you know you are, every single time, on the verge of saving someone’s life. Me, I go to sleep in order to save my own life, in that I’m too fatigued to live if I don’t get enough sleep. Without sufficient sleep I’d live a zombie-like existence shrouded in brain fog. Besides, I’m pretty sure I’m more relaxed when I’m asleep. A theory of mine. Though some people claim they can’t tell the difference between my waking and sleeping states. Stupid bosses. Glad I’m retired. But enough digression.
Though fighting a feeling of utter helplessness when awake, Will is proud of his Dream Rider achievements. Keeps him sane. Even better, provides plot points and characters for his graphic comic, always loosely based on his actual exploits. He knows his fans love his Dream Rider persona, and this gives him confidence, despite his suspicion they’d be disappointed to meet Will Dreycott in person. An alter ego is a handy thing, if it is supportive and reinforcing, and especially when consciously harnessed for good rather than evil. For a seventeen-year-old, Will has got his act together better than most adults, whether he realizes it or not.
But then “The Hollow Boys” enter his routine. These are teenage boys, all street kids, whose disappearance off the streets goes unnoticed at first because of their deliberate low-profile habits dictated by their fear of the police and authorities in general. But Harry is doing research into their hidden yet terrifying lives, and despite their caution and reluctance to “spill the beans” to a reporter and have their personal and very private agony revealed to the uncaring public, the boys and Harry have come to know one another. He immediately picks up their concerns over their unexplained diminishing number and passes the information on to Will.
Will is shocked to learn his usual dream logic search methods aren’t adequate to the task; at least, not at first. He is also shocked to discover a frightening pattern to the disappearances, one that lends a sense of urgency to his quest, as the “net” being cast for young boys appears to have a common, voracious origin whose appetite is increasing. The biggest shock of all, however, upon stumbling across several Hollow Boys in a group, is to discover they have indeed become rather hollow, bereft of their former personalities, and constitute a murderous threat to him in the dream world. Yes, he escapes into the waking world, but his bleeding wounds come with him. Is he now mortal in his dreams? And why are The Hollow Boys out to get him? Will’s routine level of confidence, always fragile, is now teetering on the brink of total collapse. He’s got to solve this new conundrum, if only to save himself.
Enter two street kid characters, Case, a young girl, and Fader, her much younger brother. They, too, though adversity and much pain, have each developed a superpower of their own, which gives them an edge when surviving on the streets but no guarantees. Against the unknown horror enveloping them, they stand a chance, but only because it doesn’t understand what they are capable of. Once made aware of their “talent,” its vastly superior supernatural power comes into play beyond their capacity to resist, or so it thinks.
Thing is, fate (and plot arc) introduces the pair of resourceful but skittish kids to Will. To them, he is the ultimate example of “the Man,” the relentless system devoted to crushing their existence as individuals, so they don’t want to put their faith in him, to put it mildly. On the other hand, the unseen villain or villains are out to kill them all for whatever insane reason, so working together to survive would appear to be a logical necessity. This makes for interesting social dynamics. If anything, the more they get to know each other, the more difficult and awkward their relationship becomes, yet the more vital it becomes for them to depend on each other because the enemy, the threat, is growing in power and seems to be more and more obsessed with killing them in particular (as opposed to all the other victims). This is intensely frustrating for Will, as he assumes their must be a reason for this hostile focus on him, but he can’t figure out what it is. Is he in some way to blame for this escalating nightmare? He hasn’t got a clue.
The villains are gradually revealed in the course of events. They have fascinating back stories of their own, are as complex and prone to mistakes as everyone else, but remain fixated on their goals for a variety of reasons which make sense to them. It is possible to bemuse them, but not to the extent of distracting them form their purpose. Too much is at stake to be merciful. Worse, compared to their mastery of the dream world, and their ability to be equally evil in the real world, Will is but a dilettante at best. He is forced to adopt “street smarts” in order to survive. In that sense, Case and Fade become his mentors easily as much as he to them.
Other characters are introduced, often seemingly minor at first, but of growing importance as matters progress. The infrastructure of “The Dream Rider” saga is being weaved, the foundation of future volumes, but in a subtle, easy to assimilate manner that doesn’t bring the action to a shuddering halt via annoying info dumps. Even better, despite hints of future problems already up to no good behind the scenes, the conflict in this first volume is fully resolved to the point of being a satisfying stand alone.
“The Hollow Boys” is a superbly crafted fantasy adventure drawing on many religious and mythological sources that place its circumstances and events in a credible setting despite its wild and bizarre premise. That it is a fast-paced page-turner is precisely because of its convoluted plot and uniquely complex characters. The more the reader learns, the more the reader wants to learn. I’d go so far as to describe it as a positively addictive epic fantasy in which it is possible for the reader to identify with all the characters, even the villains, so well does the reader get to know and understand them. To sum up, a pleasure to read.
Buy it at: < The Hollow Boys >
The second volume in the series is available here: < The Crystal Key >
The third volume, The Lost Expedition, is due out January 15th.