Jeffrey E. Barlough,
Dark Sleeper
(Western Lights, 1998;
Ace, 2000)

I found Jeffrey E. Barlough's Dark Sleeper by chance while looking on Amazon at the books purchased by fans of author Jonathan Carroll, and what a stroke of luck indeed. The cover intrigued me immediately with its snowy moonlit fog-shrouded landscape and the carriage pulled by two mastodons.

Yes, mastodons.

Dark Sleeper is set in the coastal city of Salthead, by all appearances a proper Victorian town. Yet not all is well in Salthead, for the ghost of a sailor haunts the harbor and exhorts those with whom he comes in contact to do something remarkable with their lives. The gaunt wreck of the sailor's ship floats into the harbor, and a little red-haired boy haunts the rooms above a pub.

Into this plot are drawn a Dickensian assortment of characters: Professor Titus Tiggs, a professor of metaphysics, plus his friend Dr. Daniel Dampe, secretary Austin Kibble and governess Laura Dale. Add Richard Scribbler, a hapless and mute law clerk, self-righteous and conscience-less miser Josiah Tusk, and the despicable servile solicitor Jasper Winch, as well as some very mysterious and curiously behaving strangers, and you have a complex set of interlocking storylines, bolstered by the kind of coincidental events which are staples of this style of writing. At the same time, Barlough does not descend into cliche, but adds his own original touches and surprises.

But what of the mastodons? It is true that they are used for transport and that saber-cats and other prehistoric creatures abound in the hills outside the city, but to tell the reason for that would be to spoil one of the most surprising elements of the book. Take it on faith -- you will be very intrigued.

Told by an omniscient narrator who is never identified yet who witnesses some of the events while others are related to him, the plot is deliciously rich and full of convolutions all of which resolve satisfactorily, if not necessarily happily for all.

The language is consistently vivid, replete with repetitive descriptions which serve to reinforce the narrative structure. The characters are marvelous, drawn at first in broad strokes with fine details carefully added.

Barlough is off to a wide-awake start with Dark Sleeper -- which may describe your condition all night, once you pick it up!

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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