Stage Fright, by Garrett Boatman
July, 1988 Onyx/Signet Books
Graced with one of those unforgettable ‘80s horror paperback covers, Stage Fright takes place in a then-future 1998 and concerns nightmares taking over reality. Despite the cover art and copy, the novel is in no way, shape, or form a “horror meets rock and roll” affair. In fact I suspect the title was changed to match the already-commissioned cover art; the book features an ad for other Onyx horror paperbacks, one of which is “Death Dream” by Garrett Boatman. Given that Stage Fright is the only novel Boatman published, it seems clear that its original title was “Death Dream.”
The novel, which is a too-long 381 pages of small, dense print, features a great opening, one which has the reader expecting a thrill-ride. Some NYPD officers in a boat are pulling a “floater” out of the Hudson, ie a water-bloated, “cheesy”-skinned corpse. They hook the latest floater and pull it in…and then it comes to life, ripping the cops to pieces. It bites one of them, and we learn that his corpse too will soon come to life, hungering for human flesh.
Then the lights come up and we readers realize that all this has been a “dreamie,” ie a mind-movie transmitted via mindshare tech called the Dreamatron, which we’re informed was created in 1992. Izzy Stark, the director of cult horror dreamies, is the man who delivered “Floaters” via his fevered dreams, and sadly the plot of this dreamie is more compelling than Stage Fright itself. (It sounds damn cool, too, with the off-hand mention that the “street gangs” of New York end up saving the city from the floater zombies – sounds like pure direct-to-vhs trash!)
Whether by accident or design, Boatman in these opening pages captures a sort of cyberpunk vibe. The Dreamatron technology brings to mind Neuromancer, and also we get a glimpse of this alternate-future 1998, with punk horror fans in all-white makeup and “ghoul green” t-shirts and etc. It’s like a monster kid future, and it’s super cool, and it had me excited to read a whole novel in this fascinating horror-obsessed dreamie world. Unfortunately, Boatman proceeds to skip over all that.
Instead, the novel ultimately appropriates a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde motif, with Izzy Stark using the power of his dreams to kill off people. All the dreamie-movie stuff is eclipsed. And, as is standard for all these ‘80s horror paperbacks, a helluva lot of pages are padded out with inconsequential backstory about minor characters, forgettable incidents, go-nowhere digressions, etc. There’s also way too much character-building, from Helen, Izzy’s live-in girlfriend, to Quent Hughes, an old high school pal of Izzy’s who is now a journalist and wants to do a bio on Izzy, to the elderly couple who live next door to Izzy, one of whom is going senile.
Izzy hooks up with a doctor at a nearby college who is researching the effects of taraxein, a real-life substance which is drawn from the blood of psychopaths. Constantly repeating the old “The blood is the life” saw, Izzy works with the doctor to research the effects of taraxein on his dreamies. Before you can say “I know where this is going!,” the novel goes exactly where you think it’s going. Izzy becomes consumed with the drug. Growing more and more insane, he begins to use the power of his dreams to kill off the people he thinks are out to get him. So in a way it’s all just like the Nightmare On Elm Street movies, but these taraxein dreams cross over into reality.
The kills are where the novel’s horror element comes into play, as a taraxein-soaring Izzy concocts some nightmarish scenario and sets it upon his latest victim. This ranges from zombies that call to mind Izzy’s own “Floaters” dreamie, to an army of mirror-faced soldiers who stalk the poor taraxein-supplying doctor. But we also get a surprise appearance from none other than the Creature from the Black Lagoon, always my favorite of the classic movie monsters; he smashes out of the TV when the senile neigbor is watching the movie (in 3-D, no less!) and crawls across the floor to rip out the old man’s throat and smash in his skull. Talk about a TV Casualty!!
It gets very soap operatic as Helen begins to suspect that Izzy is losing his mind. He spends all his time down in the basement of their New Jersey home, hovering over his Dreamatron, which is a console with various glowing balls that record and store the dreamer’s dreams. It all brings to mind the even-more-melodramatic Satan’s Chance, particularly when Izzy and Helen get in a hissy-fit fight and Helen storms out. But boy is all this stuff repetitive, and Izzy sure is annoying…half-drunk on taraxein, fighting everyone, beating up Helen, and puking in his sink… and then saying to himself, “Maybe I am addicted!” I mean what the hell?? We figured that out like 200 pages ago!
Izzy becomes more and more insane from the taraxein, much like Claude Rains and his monocane in the 1934 The Invisible Man. Izzy even approrpiates Rains’s look; when in his growing delusions he begins to see his skin falling off zombie-like, a panicking Izzy wraps his face in gauze so that only his red-rimmed eyes are visible. (Boatman doesn’t make the Invisible Man connection, so either he felt it was unnecessary or he just didn’t realize it.) But Izzy’s full-bore crazy now, seeing slugs and maggots in the food he tries to eat, things crawling beneath the piles of clothes on the floor, etc, and while he’s sure it’s all just the taraxein affecting his brain, he can’t be sure.
The novel gradually builds up to a big stage event Izzy’s holding on Halloween night; dreamies apparently can also be shared as live events, not just in dreamie theaters, and each Halloween Izzy puts on a special show for an audience in New York. This climactic event comprises pages 297-376 and works almost as a novella, as our disparate group of heroes find themselves within the “Boschian hellscape” that is “Izzy’s Infermo.” Having been inspired by the medieval paintings of Bosch, Izzy thrusts his dreamie audience into a nightmare of demons, zombies, monsters, and hellfire.
This sequence is cool, and definitely on the action-horror tip, with characters hacking off the heads of demons, slicing off the tentacles of demons, and in most cases being eaten or burned alive by the various monsters, but at the same time it’s a bit annoying because neither the reader nor the characters are certain if it’s all really happening. The dreamies are basically lucid dreams (a phrase not used in the text, I believe), with the dreamer, ie Izzy, coming up with the environment and the audience fully conscious as they navigate through it, even though they’re really just sleeping in their seats in the theater. So then we have a group of young dreamie fans (also the protagonists of their own too-long subplot, by the way) who get into it, wielding tridents and whatnot, confident that even though it all feels real, they’re safe and sound in a dreamie theater.
Meanwhile Helen and Quent try to get to Izzy, who appears in various personas in the hellscape, protected by demons and zombies and etc. Quent wants to stop the psychopath, while Helen is insistent upon “saving” him. Unfortunately there’s no big comeuppance for Izzy. After much setback Quent, wielding a penknife that becomes a flaming sword, and later a magical fire axe, manages to dislodge Izzy from his dreamatron, thus shattering the dreamie – and they find that the entire theater is really on fire, most of the audience burned alive in their seats. In the aftermath we find that hundreds of people have been killed, including some of the young protagonists.
However Boatman ends the tale on an unexpected ‘70s-style bummer of a note, flashing forward a year and a half later. Izzy we learn has never awoken, and is now kept asleep in a government hospital, where the CIA is using him to wage dreamie warfare on the Russians! Meanwhile Helen’s trying to free him, and also Quent’s become famous from having written a book about the disastrous Halloween event. And that’s that…after way too many pages of buildup and padding, Stage Fright sort of limps across the finish line.
Overall Boatman’s a good writer, with plentiful gore and even one explicit sex scene, but there’s just too much padding. Also, he’s guilty of some of the worst dialog modifiers I’ve ever seen – rarely do characters “say” anything. It’s always like, “Izzy intoned” or “Izzy opined,” or, my favorite of all, “Izzy intrigued.” It’s clearly an indication of a writer who felt that “Izzy said” just seemed too pedestrian and thought he’d fancy it up with bigger words…the only problem is, dialog modifiers end up calling too much attention to themselves. Never underestimate the power of plain old “said.” At any rate it’s surprising that he never published anything else.