A review of a collection by Mike O’Driscoll that originally appeared in Black Static #60:-
Welsh writer Mike O’Driscoll has a long history with TTA Press, having been a regular in the pages of The Third Alternative and put in an appearance with both Crimewave and Interzone (the pre-TTA IZ, admittedly). His Eyepennies was TTA Novella #4. As regards Black Static itself, O’Driscoll has had stories appear in #16 and #57, and for a while wrote the Night’s Plutonian Shore TV review column for the magazine.
THE DREAM OPERATOR (Undertow Press hc/pb, 318pp, $35/$25) is O’Driscoll’s second short story collection, following in the footsteps of 2006’s Unbecoming from Elastic Press. It contains eleven stories, three of which are previously unpublished. I reviewed the opening story, ‘And Zero At The Bone’, when it originally appeared in the Subtle Edens anthology and see no reason to revise my opinion of the story – “Connor works for the Bureau of Reification, his work as far as I can tell to smooth out those wrinkles in reality that might give his political masters cause for concern, a spin doctor on some social or even metaphysical level. As the story progresses we suspect that Connor’s missing wife and child, whose absence is never really explained, might have been one of those very wrinkles and that, possibly, the suspect employee of the Bureau whom Connor is investigating could be himself. It is marvellously subtle and clever stuff, with O’Driscoll building up the picture one step at a time and merging influences from all over the literary and genre shop, so that you think of work like Dick’s A Scanner Darkly and the film V for Vendetta, can see those influences at play, but appreciate that O’Driscoll has delivered something uniquely his own.”
‘The Entire City’ was similarly elusive, but not as aesthetically satisfying. With more than a touch of noir about the action, it’s set in the city of Provenance where various hitmen and underworld characters with names such as Hector and Thingstable, Snow and Firstnighter, circle round each other and the prostitute Darla like sharks waiting to make the kill. O’Driscoll’s writing is assured and there are some recurring images with an almost emblematic quality to them that tantalise, but all the same I couldn’t help feeling like one of the characters in the story – “He tried to think, to piece things together, but the details were like smoke, drifting, ungraspable.” One to enjoy more for the ride than the destination, I feel.
One of the most remarkable stories in the book, ‘Beasts of Season’ has a lost boys’ vibe going on, with Cai and his sister Meghan drawn into the games played by a group of outsiders led by the enigmatic and controlling Troy. Underlying the surface narrative is a rich back story about the fairy folk and the disappearance of Cai and Meghan’s father, with strands of menace woven into the text. O’Driscoll is superb in his evocation of the landscape, the potential for both terror and wonder that is implicit in nature, and also in his understanding of the dynamics of the childhood group, the way in which power shifts back and forth, while behind all that there is something that is quintessentially mysterious and unknowable, with the reader left to interpret what takes places as he or she will.
There’s a Bradbury feel to ‘The Spaceman’ in which Freddie and his friends Mouse and Jenna meet the ethereal Captain Paul, who was in charge of a moon launch unknown to the history of the manned space exploration, and who somehow needs their help to set things right. Again childhood rivalries are at the heart of the story, but underlying this is recognition of the need to accept the marvellous into our lives, that sometimes we simply have to believe even though what we see defies all logic. After the death of his older brother, Ceri returns home from Australia to settle family affairs and is drawn into ‘One Last Wild Waltz’ (previously published in Black Static #16) with Alison, the woman he loved and lost to the abusive Frank. On the surface of the narrative, O’Driscoll gives us an eerie and atmospheric ghost story, one riddled with the feeling of ambiguity (everything could easily be taking place inside Ceri’s head, a train of circumstances prompted by his return to the scene of past unhappiness), but there are strands here of abuse and bullying that reaches out from the grave, with the spectre of love twisted into an unnatural shape and a battery of unsettling images and effects that underline the feeling of something numinous in play.
In a deft piece of metafictional sleight of hand, ‘The Facts In The Case of Mr. P-’ gives us the story of Poe’s M. Valdemar, but then makes the story all about EAP himself, offering a different slant on the final days of his life. Told from the perspective of a doctor friend of the author, and written with a Borgesian slant, it’s a clever and hugely enjoyable story that gleefully subverts its subject material while still offering us something in the way of the anticipated chill. ‘Lost Highway’ is a ghost story of sorts, but also a paean to country music, with Burney, a man who has done terrible things in the name of love, meeting one of the greats of the genre. It’s a subtle piece, filled with raw emotion that reflects the material in which it is rooted, with the feeling of sadness and loss overshadowing everything else, so that we feel for Burney even as we deplore the things he may or may not have done.
Last but not least we have title story ‘The Dream Operator’, which appears to be set in the same (under)world as ‘The Entire City’ but with a more comprehensible plotline (at least to me). The dream operator of the title, Moon was once able to infiltrate the dreams of others with help from the drug Reverie, but is now burned out. He puts his safety at risk by defying his former business associates. It is a story rich in detail, with larger than life characters and sense of the grim and bleak lives they lead. Underlying all that there are themes of addiction, abuse, and redemption, as Moon tries to make up for the failures of his past by saving someone in the present, and at the same time it shows how dreams of a different kind can dictate our actions, with much of Moon’s behaviour rooted in the noir films he watches with an obsessive zeal, so that the role of anti-hero out to save the girl in one last fling of the dice comes almost as second nature to him. It is a fitting end to a strong collection from one of the finest writers in the field.
NB: There are three more excellent stories – ‘Summerhouse’, ‘The Rediscovery of Death’, and ’13 O’Clock’ – that I reviewed when they first appeared in print. Rather than discuss them again here, I will post my previous comments to the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com