Dreams of the Dead (Bloomsbury, 2009) kicks off Thomas Randall’s original paperback trilogy The Waking with a killer first line: “Akane Murakami died for a boy she did not love.”
After moving to Japan’s Miyazu City with her recently widowed father, American high school student Kara befriends the sister of murdered schoolgirl Akane. When their classmates begin dying in bizarre ways, Kara finds herself contemplating whether the dead girl has come back to take her revenge on her killers.
The truth is more complicated and even stranger, involving a vengeful demon from Japanese folklore. In the sequel Spirits of the Noh (Bloomsbury, June), another ancient evil targets Kara and her friends. The trilogy will end (and the dead return) next year with the release of A Winter of Ghosts.
Author Randall draws on the vast body of Japanese mythology and urban legend, and his trilogy embodies what seems to be a particularly Japanese type of horror: murderous ancient spirits punishing contemporary misdeeds. Their wrath is not necessarily proportional to the crime, or even directed at the guilty party; often the innocent are harmed as well. The idea that these entities gain strength from the emotions (especially the fear) of their victims only makes them more terrifying.
Tiny details of Japanese culture create the perfect backdrop. Randall adds depth through Kara’s awareness of her status as a “bonsai”—a transplanted outsider—and the difficulties of juggling two dissimilar cultures. Strong subplots revolve around Kara’s complex relationships: her new friendships, a blossoming romance, and her bond with her father (which is somewhat strained when he begins dating again).
But what will really appeal to horror fans is the genuine suspense Randall builds from that gripping first line, even though we should know what’s coming from the novels’ familiar formula. Great for late-night reading leading up to Halloween—but you might want to sleep with the lights on.