Alan Ryker is one of my favorite recent discoveries in horror and I was delighted to (somewhat belatedly) read his novel Dream of the Serpent. Like all Ryker, it has an immediate grasp of the little details that make a story pop out, whether it’s the procedure of closing a midlist Italian restaurant or the medicinal smell of a burn unit, but that solidity is even more remarkable given the metaphysical issues at play. Too often, it’s easy for writers to buy profundity by selling the reality of their story too cheaply–as we learned from Yellow Submarine, “it’s all in the mind.” But Ryker does better, and excels at the clash between the intense physicality of a recovering burn victim and the hallucinogenic philosophical exploring he’s starting to do when his eyes are closed. It’s only by providing the first that he can persuade us of the need for the second. If you were Cody, you’d find your musings about the place where the rubber band of the world might snap very compelling, too.
At the beginning of the novel, Cody is bright, affable, handsome, and definitely going places–he’s engaged to the girl of his dreams who happens (actually and genuinely by coincidence) to also be providing him with the father-in-law of his dreams, a man who can offer him (you guessed it!) the job of his dreams. He’s working as a waiter to fill in he gaps in his income as he transitions from lower-middle class to upper-, and he’s eager to close up and get to a party with Madison, his girlfriend. She calls. He’s distracted. And so, as he’s scraping the fryer, a spark ignites the oil and sets Cody and the restaurant ablaze.
He’s severely burned and disfigured, and the novel spends about forty percent of its length exploring, in painful detail, his physical recovery and his lack of emotional recovery. He knows too well that he’s lost his life. Because Madison blames herself for distracting him, he’s lost her, too–a loss he’s complicit in by refusing, for opaque but understandable reasons, to relieve her of her guilt and assure her of his love. Cody has dreams of another life, a life that would have happened if he’d remembered to turn the fryer off, but each time, he wakes up confined to a slumped, scar-tissue-tightened body with a face so terrifying to him that he covers it with a silicon mask.
Meanwhile, Madison is falling down the rabbit hole. She tells him a word: Ouroboros.
I don’t want to give away the entirety of the novel–instead, I want to focus on that crucial first forty percent. So many horror stories give way immediately to non-stop action-adventure, with their writers forgetting that all action is action, and all action is the key to character. The scenes of Cody’s treatment are pivotal because they establish Madison’s motivation for her action–we know that she would do anything to take away her guilt for Cody’s fate–and Cody’s intense and intensely warranted fear of that turning point in his life, and of fire. These scenes also remind us that horror can be found in places beyond the obvious. Pockets of infection, skin turned into a chrysalis, an eye removed and covered with a flap–medicine is brutal. Ryker has the eye–and the time–to convince us that for Cody, the horror of the novel is present long before Madison tells him of the worm that eats its own tail.
In “Best New Horror,” by Joe Hill, a horror editor talks about how horror too often ignores the “bread of everyday life” to focus on the “rare bleeding meat.” Ryker avoids that stumbling block neatly. It isn’t enough just to have more than blood in your horror—you have to have bread.
Dream of the Serpent is about bread the slowly becomes suffused with strangeness. It isn’t about blood at all. It’s about pain, guilt, responsibility, fear, and sacrifice, about deaths that can be undone and deaths that can’t. And if it weren’t so grounded in what it’s like to see your childhood height chart and realize scarring has bent you two inches shorter than you were at eighteen, and how yelling could split open your barely-healed cheek, it wouldn’t be about anything at all. Instead, it’s almost everything. Which means you should read it.