The Dust of Wonderland
Reviewed by Nickolas Cook
With his debut novel, Stained (Wildside Press, 2004), Lee Thomas walked away with a Stoker for Superior Achievement in the First Novel Category. It was a brilliant piece of fiction and, obviously, a tough act to follow. But Thomas has proven himself up to the challenge with The Dust of Wonderland, which may easily provide him with a second Stoker.
Thomas tells the story of Ken Nicholson, an aging man still trying to find a balance between his gay lifestyle and family. His carefully constructed world is suddenly turned upside down when he finds himself back in New Orleans after his son is viciously attacked by a mysterious youth and left for dead. It soon becomes apparent that Nicholson may know the powers behind the attack and must confront his own decadent past with a strangely powerful man named Travis Brugier, an infamous owner of a Southern palace called Wonderland and killer of young men who committed suicide decades before. As his world unreels around him, Nicholson suspects Brugier’s vengeful spirit is reaching from beyond the grave to ensnare and destroy him- one loved one at a time.
Thomas has written a book of powerful intimacy, one that details his protagonist’s struggles with what he wants vs. what the world expects of him. His emotions resonate with any whom have ever felt the pull of real love and passion, but must ultimately give into the dictates of the real world. His adept ability to comprehend the disappointments from all family members, including Ken’s forsaken lover, David, make something that could have easily been relegated by a lesser writer into a very narrow sub-genre of fiction into a multi-dimensional read for all readers- horror lovers or not.
The major element that works underneath the story is how each character is at odds with their love for one another, either hating it or regretting it. The only one that feels anything close to true love is the villain. An excellent twist, I thought, and one, again, which made this more than a mere story of horror. After all, sometimes isn’t true horror wasting years waiting for someone else to return love given?
Thomas also shows great craftsmanship in slowly revealing the true immensity of Brugier’s incredible powers. The last fifteen pages will leave you wondering if all Nicholson’s struggles are only a dream or reality.
There were only two elements within the tale that did not hit on all cylinders for this reviewer.
The first comes early on in the story, as the ‘terrible incident’ that took place in Wonderland all those years ago is hinted at and given quite a buildup. When Nicholson’s memories cull forth the true story of the night Brugier kills himself along with several of his vassals, it’s hardly as hideous as we imagined. The true history of horrors in New Orleans’ past is much worse. (Try, for instance, to imagine the real life horrors that occurred at The LaLaurie House on Royal Street).
The second is the building in clues on how to destroy Brugier using the story within a story ploy. It felt extraneous and too contrived- although it was clear there was more going on than the author foreboding future events. It was also an acknowledgment of sorts from Thomas on the power of personal myth, and how we tend to create our own stories to suit our purposes and justify our failings. On that level it works, but not for the narrative.
With this second novel, Thomas has cemented himself as a true craftsman and talent to watch in the future. The Dust of Wonderland is well worth the read.