We all have those other places. The places we go, when we drift out of consciousness.
I had an odd dream, last night.
We’d been traveling to a place that doesn’t exist, on a large ship. In one scene, there was a fascinating spider. It was a spider, but it was also a man – a human man – and when it was in human form, I liked him. He was funny, friendly, smart. He was calm and kind. I don’t remember whether he was a relative or just a family friend, but it seemed merely interesting, not shocking or fantastic, that he spent some of his time in spider form, living on driftwood in a glass aquarium. At one point, I smiled at the spider, and he excitedly hopped up the driftwood to the edge of the aquarium, and I plucked him from the branch and put him on my forearm. It was better that, than risk having him leap onto my head. I was terrified; it was all I could do to remember that he was also a person – a kind, funny, friendly, smart person that I’d sat, talking to, just a short time before. As a spider, he had the personality of an excitable puppy dog. But I was still terrified, and after a few minutes, had to pluck him – gently – off my arm and put him back onto the branch. I didn’t want to hurt the spider or its feelings, but I had to fight the urge to throw it, violently, into the aquarium. It was still a spider.
Later, I was walking on the sidewalk of this strange place, and this is when I figured out that the place doesn’t exist. The “sidewalks” were more like shallow canals: flat, ankle deep, concrete troughs of clean, clear water that people walked in. I came to an intersection of the troughs, and it was filled with children playing with…snakes. The trough was full of snakes. The snakes, like the spider, appeared to be benign and almost friendly – they didn’t seem to mind being played with, and wound their way around the ankles of passersby as if they were cats, not snakes. I was utterly repulsed. I could not take another step forward. I looked into the snakes’ faces, noting that one was a harmless, hog-nosed rat snake. All of them were harmless varieties of garter snakes, king snakes, small pythons, rat snakes, corn snakes – as far as I could tell. My eyes told me that they were harmless, but my brain kept on warning me that there might be a mamba in the middle. It only takes one. I wanted to get out of the troughs, but we weren’t supposed to walk on the grass.
I turned back and retraced my steps, and sought refuge on the ship. At least, I think that it was a ship. It seemed to morph from train station to airport to ship to floating island and that did not seem at all strange or alarming in the dream. It was mildly confusing; I’m not really sure where we were going or why, but it didn’t seem to matter. Most of the family was there, and it was a pleasant trip, despite the spiders and snakes.
I’m pretty sure this dream was an over-tired brain’s mash-up of the odd novel I finished as I drifted off to sleep, called An Other Place, by Darren Dash; a few too many slices of pizza with anchovies, washed down by my semi-annual Coca-Cola and a few Lindor truffles; and my ridiculous phobias – no doubt my fear of spiders and venomous snakes has everything to do with my fear of needles, and I had my pre-op blood testing yesterday afternoon.
I have a confession to make: I don’t like doing book reviews. First, they’re too much like self-inflicted “book reports,” and who among us enjoyed those assignments? I wonder if the reluctant readers thought they were the only ones who dreaded them. Did they assume that the avid readers among us loved them for the easy A’s? I loved reading; I voraciously devoured books. I loved to write, to play with words. But I balked at literary analysis and criticism; I never enjoyed ferreting out, consciously, the symbolism employed by the author. I cringed at analyzing the subconscious message of the author. It seemed especially unfair to do it to the dead authors, who could not defend themselves to say, “Good God, man, it was just a little too much crushed red pepper on my pizza!” or, “Hey, I thought he was cute. I imagined more. That doesn’t mean that I, personally, wanted more. I just wanted to explore the idea of more. In my head, not my bed.”
I don’t want spiders that turn into men, or men who turn into spiders. If such a world existed, I might seek out the nearest cliff and strive to end it all. The writer in me now imagines a long free-fall full of regrets, and a bouncy carpet of spiders catching me at the bottom, only to bite me till I stop trying to kill them all as they spin me into a cocoon for later snack-time. All the while, they whisper, telling me no, the cocoon is merely a straight-jacket, and I am being restrained for my own well-being. Cared for by nurse-spiders while I slowly go mad.
I am not sure, in all good conscience, that I can recommend An Other Place. If you ignore my advice, don’t read yourself to sleep with it.
It’s an odd novel; the first thing I noticed is that the book is poorly designed. The cover design is unappealing. If I had judged the book by its cover (and, be honest, who doesn’t?) I would never have been curious enough to pluck it from a shelf. I’d bought it based on hyperbolic recommendations from the professional reviewers:
“This is, by far, the best book of 2016, possibly the best book of this decade… the bastard love child of Kafka and Rod Serling, throwing in a dash of Ray Bradbury for good measure. 5/5 — brilliant. Just brilliant.” Kelly Smith Reviews.
The “best book of this decade”? No. Just…no. This, alone, has me questioning the credibility of Kelly Smith Reviews. I had high hopes for it, being “the bastard love child of Kafka and Rod Serling,” with “a dash of Ray Bradbury for good measure.” I see some similarities, but it’s a stretch. Kafka, maybe. I could see this as an episode of The Twilight Zone, if it were highly edited and made suitable for general audiences. Ray Bradbury generally wrote more likeable characters.
“Dash’s surreal tale has its share of unsettling moments. There’s also an abundance of intriguing peculiarities. An often baffling tale, but its protagonist’s wry commentary is undeniably entertaining.” Kirkus.
I suspect there was more to that, but I won’t quibble; peculiar, entertaining, full of wry commentary are all fair statements. I didn’t find it all that baffling, and I feel as if that statement, alone, should worry me.
While the lines of type are nicely spaced—almost too nicely spaced—the type is far too faint to be read easily.
I can’t say that I liked or related to any of the characters, and that is usually one of the things that absolutely must happen for me to read a book cover to cover. I didn’t really like much about it, but the writing drew me in, anyway. The premise is one that fascinated me in the same way Stephen King’s It fascinated me; the idea of it, at least, is more commonplace than some of us imagine. Or talk about, with one another. Oh, not Dash’s own little creation myth – everything about that was odd, but let’s not psychoanalyze the author. My own karma can’t afford it, I think. No, the crossing strands of other places, and the occasional wondering of which is real and which is other, or whether both or all are equally, simultaneously, real.
Before the book arrived, I’d toyed with the idea of writing my own version of it. Last night’s dream presents itself, as fodder. Because I, too, have other places. But mine, and Darren Dash’s, are nothing at all alike. I like mine better. Dash’s other places are bleak, monochromatic things, terrifyingly dreary, dull places, compared to mine. It’s the perfect set-up, though, for his creation myth; by the time we get there, we can simultaneously gag, roll our eyes, and laugh – the most disgusting and unrelateable thing in the book might be the most amusing, even to me, by the end.
I imagine we all prefer our own, but what is reading, if not playing tourist in another human’s “other places”? It wasn’t the worst book of 2017, I’m sure.