What Dreams May Come In Mark Allan Gunnells' New Novel, 'Lucid'

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Dreams, their content, meaning, interpretation and influence upon our waking lives, have fascinated humankind for thousands of years. Our ancient ancestors in Sumer, Egypt and Babylon believed Divine agents routinely communicated with us during those nightly journeys through slumberland, yet over a century's worth of data collection by Oneirologists (dream studiers) has failed to uncover precisely where dreams originate, if a single or multiple regions of the brain are involved, or what evolutionary purpose dreaming serves for either mind or body.

The mercurial, metamorphic, often unsettling nature of dreams has been both the springboard for religious, philosophical, artistic and even inventive thought (Google, the Periodic Table and the sewing machine were all dream-stimulated innovations) as well as an unrivaled mirror into our own individual personal subconscious. Dreams weave our hopes, desires, anxieties, past actions and daily routines together in vivid, often grotesquely distorted, ways; it's little wonder then that innumerable paintings, plays, poems, operas, novels and films have utilized those visions as their narrative centerpiece, and from A Midsummer's Night Dream to Inception, H.P. Lovecraft's Dream Cycle to the Elm Street nightmares inflicted by Freddy Krueger, they provide a bottomless inspirational well.

Valhalla Books' release of author Mark Allan Gunnells' horror-thriller, Lucid, is the latest creative effort in that fevered lineage. By definition, a lucid dream is any in which the dreamer obtains awareness of their dream state while dreaming. Results from scientific studies over the last fifty years have shown that while roughly 55% of people experience lucid dreams at least once in their lifetime, a significantly smaller fraction have the uncommon ability to actively control the content of their dreams, and it's this rare facility that Lucid's protagonist, Jimmy Mullinax, possesses. After enduring traumatic childhood abuse from his hateful, hard-drinking mom, Jimmy discovers his talent at an early age, using it to construct an elaborate, escapist fantasy domain where he retains godlike control of every minute detail. Jimmy's lusterless day-to-day existence is bland and disappointing; he routinely shuns beneficial human contact in favor of the make-believe he's fostered in his dreamworld, where he's designed idealized versions of his mother, his boyfriends and even a deceased teenage crush. Once he suffers an automobile accident at the novel's onset and lapses into a coma, however, there's no escaping the realm he's crafted, and when he alarmingly realizes that some of those he's drawn into his never-ending dream are independently sentient of his influence and plotting his demise in the real world, a conflict erupts that threatens to destroy them all.

True to its subject, the narrative structure in Lucid shares the same chimerical, stream-of-consciousness quality as actual dreams, flowing from the starting point of Jimmy's accident, back into his past and sliding effortlessly into the dreamworld before the cycle begins anew. Though a very different work than Gunnells' previous novel, the campus slice-of-life exercise The Advantaged, there exists common thematic threads about identity, responsibility, self-acceptance and, ultimately, forgiveness. Gunnells takes a risk in showing the audience just how Jimmy came to be where he is; as a protagonist, he's often unsympathetic, selfish, egocentric, controlling, manipulative, cowardly, lazy--at times verging on megalomania. In his dreamscape Jimmy exerts a deity's dominion in a way he wishes he had in the waking world--that he could have, if only he set aside his fretful anxieties. In a lesser writer such a gamble would arouse antipathy in an audience, yet Gunnells consistently displays a supreme capacity for layering his characters with a depth that defies stereotyping. Jimmy's mother, for instance, portrayed initially as simple lowlife white trash, is progressively shown as more than the sum of her flawed parts, a thoroughly human figure who, like all of us, has made her share of bad decisions and must live with the consequences. Jimmy, too, has to face his own fears and imperfections to realize that he's squandering his potential, and on this level his obsessive need for the dream kingdom can be seen as an allegory for addiction: like an opium fiend, he's allowed his nighttime excursions to become his sole preoccupation, and he willingly throws away real-world relationships in favor of their faultless dream counterparts.

There's much more to Lucid than a character study, however. As sheer entertainment value, it's a difficult book to put down; once Gunnells has an audience in his clutches, there's no letting go until the roller coaster ride is over. Fun, rapid-fire dialogue and clever pop cultural nods to The Cure, Clive Barker and The Crow liven even the darkest of scenes with wit, heart and humor. To anyone familiar with Neil Gaiman's bravura graphic novel series, The Sandman, the unreal setting of Lucid is similar to The Dreaming, and the climactic battle between Jimmy and his primary adversary, Brent--a youth whose spirit Jimmy inadvertently trapped by continually bringing him into the dreamworld post mortem--defines the word epic. In the limitless realm of Jimmy's subconscious, their struggle is a clash of two titans; mountains shatter, tectonic plates crumble, oceans rise--and pages flip by with such pulse-pounding speed it leaves readers breathless. In the end, though, the question of whether Jimmy triumphs over his enemy is oddly unimportant; the central issue of this novel is the hopeful notion that no matter who we are or how much we may have failed, redemption can always be found if we work towards it.

Pushing the boundaries of possibility, overflowing with ideas, surreal imagery and laced with emotion, this bold, exciting and supremely imaginative novel will leave any reader longing, like Jimmy himself, that the dream will never end, and it's for that reason that I give Lucid the full 5 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale. This would make a spectacular big-budget Hollywood extravaganza. Highly recommended.

5.0 / 5.0