Book Reviews

Pain and Three Kinds of Death in Dustin LaValley’s ‘A Soundless Dawn’

So what is Dustin LaValley’s A Soundless Dawn all about? Well, for one thing, it’s about pain. Yes, there’s plenty of pain in this book… a lot of it is emotional pain, the kind that comes with bad memories, those past moments that afflict your mind with noisy insistence at ungodly hours. There are bad party vibes and eerie urban visitations and suicides and giant, lurching creatures made of rainwater. There are other kinds of pain in A Soundless Dawn, too — plenty of physical, psychological and metaphysical pain, and more often than not it’s attached to the book’s clearest thematic underpinning: Death.

“Death isn’t simple,” LaValley’s narrators and transient characters repeatedly inform readers. And one suspects that LaValley knowingly conveys this sentiment through his formal decisions; by all means, this is an unusually constructed book. The statement that “death isn’t simple” comes first from “the dirty man” who intrudes on the uneasy memories of a young boy at the center of “Picture-in-Picture.” On a first read, I feel confident naming this the strongest entry in the book — comprised of interlocking points-of-view and two seemingly separate levels of reality, the story leaves a sense of dread reminiscent of a well-wrought Aickman tale. There are several kinds of death, reports the story’s dirty man, and A Soundless Dawn creeps quietly but unapologetically around them all — sociological, psychological, and biological.

You might now have a sense of what A Soundless Dawn is about, but you might just as well still be asking, “Okay, but what is it really about?” Well, it’s about many things. It’s about sleeplessness and the inevitable deathward glide of relationships, it’s about long, solitary nighttime drives and their accompanying thoughts, it’s about the kinds of visions that come from drugs and trauma, and also about the kinds that rise from the pages of comic books, from obscure television channels and vivid dreams.

Above all, it’s about style. LaValley plays fast and loose with grammar and punctuation, paying mind to cadence and tone. Horror legend Edward Lee references Hubert Selby Jr. in his generous introduction, and I must agree with the comparison. Using a prose style more akin to poetry than standard narrative fiction, LaValley foregrounds the uneasy rhythms and movements of psychic interiority — for this, and for his persistently bleak tone, I see a connection with another giant of the horror genre: Kathe Koja.

LaValley writes almost exclusively in the first person (one of the book’s gleefully morbid third-person diversions, “The Secrets of Dr. Sortelli,” riffs on classic supernatural fiction); this intimate point-of-view heightens the collection’s close and confrontational mode. Reading through the snippets, anecdotes and grim tales that comprise its brisk 145 pages, I often had the feeling that I was entertaining morbid topics of conversation with a distant friend. The book is written in a style more confessional than narrative, often depicting the staggered speech patterns of its characters relaying uncomfortable recollections (“Sand Bucket” comes to mind as a particularly effective example).

For me, reading this kind of fiction brings to mind Stephen King’s introduction to Jim Thompson’s 1942 debut novel, Now and on Earth. King argues that “someone has to look for those irregularities that may signal tumors and cancers — tumors and cancer that may exist in the bowel of society as well as that of the individual.” King deems Thompson to be that someone, along with a rich literary heritage populated by the likes of Melville, Dreiser, and Dostoyevsky. I submit that LaValley’s book searches for another sort of irregularity — the sort that thrives inside the claustrophobic confines of the human skull.

For all my above references, to Koja, King and introduction writer Lee (along with living legend Thomas Ligotti, who publicly sang praise for A Soundless Dawn), this book does not read like “standard horror fiction” (as Lee aptly points out). For its stylistic eccentricities and focus on the transcription of the tortured human mind, this collection reads more like experimental prose-poetry than anything else. It really must be read to be understood, but don’t take my word for it… just ask Lee and Ligotti.

Mike Thorn’s film criticism has appeared in numerous journals and publications, including MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, Bright Lights Film Journal and The Seventh Row. His fiction has been published recently in DarkFuse #5, Turn to Ash Vol. 0 and Straylight Literary Arts Magazine. Darkest Hours, his debut short fiction collection, is slated for a November release with Unnerving. For more information, visit his website and follow him on Twitter @mikethornwrites.