Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.
“Smart, stylish, and as alarming as it is indubitably alluring, Dream London deftly demonstrates that the weird still has a thing or two to prove.” So reads the conclusion of my review, which was followed, in short order, by acclaim from Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner Chris Beckett, who spoke highly of the author’s “combination of humour, intelligence and deep darkness” in this That Was Awesome! piece.
That same April, Solaris announced that Tony Ballantyne was doubling down on his darkling dreamscape with a sequel set in “the metropolis dubbed the most romantic city on Earth—but its connection to the lost souls of London is anything but idyllic.” The bad news: Dream Paris isn’t expected till next September.
But I’ve got good news too!
‘Dream London Hospital,’ a short story found in Fearsome Magics—which is to say the second volume of The New Solaris Book of Fantasy, which kicked off last year with the fantastic Fearsome Journeys—should tide over the milieu’s admirers in the meantime.
Ballantyne packs in a lot of what made Dream London such phantasmagorical fun in this brief piece, which takes the shape of a series of variously affecting vignettes arranged around a discomfiting frame. The protagonist is a creature called the Carrionman—“just another refugee from the world of pain that lies outside the doors” of the hellish hospital the tale takes place in—and he seems to be hunting someone:
Upstairs lie the private wards, the places where the rich of Dream London come to fake illnesses and gain sympathy, to have a little time out from the day to day. Upstairs are the places for people suffering from the vapours; the humours; from inflamed organs of sensibility and infected hermeneutics. Upstairs are rich women needing pampering and rich men having their sex addiction worked through by a series of nubile young nurses. She won’t be up here.
I need to head downstairs. The lower you go in Dream London Hospital, the more serious the illness. Down the stairs, past the day wards; recuperation; in-patients; intensive care; keep heading down until you reach the deepest basements. There you find the furnaces, the place where they burn all the waste, the bloody bandages, the body parts, the dead. The very end of Dream London Hospital. That’s the direction I need to go.
“There’s no moral to this story, by the way, save that we all have to make a living,” and of course the Carrionman makes his by eating people, so you can imagine what he plans to do with the woman he’s looking for.
‘Dream London Hospital’ isn’t a surprising short story in that sense—if anything the framing fiction is flat—but the characters the Carrionman encounters in as he descends into the bowels of the hospital—“abandon bodily fluids, all those who enter here,” reads the engraving over the archway into the building’s basement—these folks and their stories are markedly more interesting than him and his.
In one, Boyfriend and Girlfriend are “just so into each other” that their hands have melted together; in another, Queen Victoria appears; but the most extended vignette is a stop-start narrative about a family. Mother and Father have dragged Son and Daughter into Dream London Hospital in order to ascertain whether Eldest is or is not in the Egg they found on his bed. While the rest of the family fusses, Son goes exploring.
Again and again again, his path crosses the Carrionman’s. Eventually, our peculiar protagonist comes upon Son in the hospital’s Spare Parts department, where he’s “to be cut up so that some wealthy woman upstairs can have a new liver. And in three years’ time she’ll have drunk that one into oblivion and there’ll be another little boy lying here on the bed,” as one of the night nurses notes.
Will the Carrionman intervene? Well, it’s not in his nature. More likely he’ll eat Son up himself. But that’s not how the story goes…
Ballantyne’s blend of dark fantasy and cosmic horror is replete with the weird, as is the surreal city he’s built. The setting, then, is tremendous, and the story… mostly engrossing. His characters, on the other hand—both the Captain and the Carrionman—have been altogether unattractive. One can only hope the author opts for more sympathetic perspectives in the sequel.
Perhaps the most appropriate point of comparison for this short, though, is The Ward by S. L. Grey. ‘Dream London Hospital’ is not so sharply satirical as that, but it’s just as wicked, and just as wonderful. With no news about the future of the Downside series in sight and Dream Paris a year away yet, what we have here is damn fine reminder of the successes of the Dream sequence so far.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.