Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A Plague of Nightmares by Adrian Cole

“That is a question that you have no right to ask, despite your own self-importance, Galad Sarian. The Dream Lords, who make the unquestionable laws for the whole of the nine worlds, have passed a judgement on Ur and her people for her terrible crimes. To suggest, to even hint, that we Zurjhans are one and the same race is not only blasphemous, it is wicked—evil.”
My copy of the 1977 printing
At the Village Bookshelf in Massillon, Ohio, they have a great science fiction section, and on my recent visit I saw lots of stuff I had not seen before.  One such find was Adrian Cole's A Plague of Nightmares; the evocative cover painting by Tom Barber on the 1977 Zebra paperback blew me away and I had to have it.  This weekend I opened up the volume to see if the text lived up to the cover.

The people of planet Zurjah sleep soundly every night because their rulers, the Dream Lords, three men who seek to transcend the physical and live as wholly mental beings, transmit to them soothing dreams.  But our protagonist, Galad Sarian, son of one of the Dream Lords and heir to a seat among these mysterious rulers, hasn't been sleeping too well.  As the novel begins he comes to realize the Dream Lords are hiding from their subjects some uncomfortable realities--not only do they use their hypnotic powers to make people think barren and decrepit Zurjah is beautiful and comfortable, but the Dream Lords have been concealing the truth that the people of Zurjah did not originate on Zurjah, but are in fact descendants of colonists from Ur, the planet of barbarians and prisoners held in slavery by the Zurjahans!  Strange visions, and a reclusive and shunned dissident wizard over a thousand years old, Chalremor, give Galad the idea that he is destined to lead an Ur revolution against the Dream Lords and unite the people of the nine-planet Empire.

When the Dream Lords get wind of the fact that Galad is on to their lies, they send him to college on planet Gargan.  (As we all know, public school is where the government sends you to make sure you are in accord with the ruling elite's dogma.) Luckily, Galad hooks up with some Chalremor supporters for some extracurricular activities.  Our hero gets mixed up in some complicated intrigues: Doras Vorta, the governor of Ur (Title: Warden; Responsibilities: Oppressing the people of Ur; Skills: Mental powers rivalling those of the Dream Lords themselves; Hobbies: Torture), is infiltrating the Zurjahan establishment on Gargan with his own followers as well as fomenting rebellion among the native Garganians in order to augment his own power—his ambition is to overthrow the Dream Lords and make himself master of all nine planets.

Vorta's agents target Galad (Vorta wants to eliminate Galad so he can put forward his own candidate for Galad's seat on the Dream Lord triumvirate, Galad's decadent cousin Ravas) and the Chalremor underground tries to spirit Galad out of the college town via the sewers.  A running fight involving robots, hover cars, and sword-swinging and spear-hurling guards ensues, and many Imperial Guards fall, but in the end Galad's Garganian friends are killed and he is captured. Galad is dragged before one of Vorta's foremost agents on Gargan, the governor of the college town, a decadent and effeminate homosexual, for a scene that I expect will soon be outlawed in the EU as hate speech.

Galad escapes and joins up with some fugitive slaves who had been brought in chains to Gargan from Ur.
It struck me then how completely I was with the Barbarian cause now, for I had my weapon ready to use brutally against any Guard, or indeed, man, who stood against us.  All the remnants of Dream Lord culture and sophistication had dropped away from me and I had become a physical, ruthless predator.   
Galad and co. travel through secret tunnels and creepy forests to interrupt a human sacrifice to the false gods of the rebellious faction of the native Garganians, led by the mental force of Warden Vorta, transmitted to Gargan from Vorta's HQ on Ur.  Galad's comrades from Ur all get killed (this dude is a bad luck charm) but Galad matches his mental powers against Vorta's, stopping the rebellion.  Unfortunately, moments after executing the gay governor, Galad is captured by Ravas.  On the last page of the book we learn Galad is going to be shipped to Ur so Vorta can torture him!

1975 edition; the Tolkien and
Lovecraft references are not,
in my opinion, very apposite
The setting and plot of A Plague of Nightmares are servicable, and I like such themes as the contrast between the physical life and the mental life, and between the sophisticated colony and the degenerate homeworld it has come to dominate. However, the pace of the first half of the novel, on Zurjah, is slow, with lots of descriptions of buildings and plants and lots of long talky scenes involving characters—like the man who trained Galad how to fight, Gundar, and Galad's girlfriend, Taria—who are just not interesting, and play no role in the second half of the book.  Cole fails to bring the narrator’s relationships with these people to life, so I didn’t care that he had to leave them behind on Zurjah when he was sent to Gargan, or when Vorta threatened to sacrifice Taria to the Garganian gods.

The second half of the book, on Gargan, moves quickly and has some excitement.  Cole appeals to the reader's fascination with the disgusting and the horrible (note how the first edition was advertised as a horror novel); there's the scene in which the perfumed and bejeweled homosexual leers at the helpless Galad (nowadays people might be reluctant to admit they are disgusted by gay men, but we are talking 1975 here), the whippings and other tortures, human sacrifice, and fights in which people get burned to cinders by energy weapons or have their fingers cut off with swords.  I suppose you'd have to say there's an exploitative element to A Plague of Nightmares.

A major problem is presented by Cole’s style; it is not so good.  Occasionally I came upon a sentence which stopped me dead in my tracks. On page 38 we get “Somewhere within me was bedded a compunction to see it through, as though Chalremor had laid on me aegis of sorts.” I don’t like “bedded,” for starters. Then there comes “compunction;” I think of a compunction as something that urges you to not do something, but this sentence seems to be saying Galad feels driven to do something.  Does Cole mean “compulsion?” Then there is “aegis.” I think of an aegis as a shield or as the protection afforded a weaker entity by a stronger.  That makes no sense here; does Cole mean “a geis?” Whether Cole is to blame, or some editor or typesetter, this sentence is a distraction and such sentences really damage the novel.

Despite my misgivings about the style and copyediting, I found A Plague of Nightmares intriguing enough that I shall continue on with the sequels, Lord of Nightmares and Bane of Nightmares.  I am sincerely curious what is in store for Galad on Ur.  And I am not immune to the morbid charms of the book's exploitative and politically incorrect elements--I am still the same person who got those equivocal, uncomfortable thrills while sitting in a dark theater in 1981, seeing a man who had been killed by a spear trap, a hulking Luftwaffe mechanic about to be torn apart by a spinning propellor, and the faces of German agents melted by the supernatural.

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