My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“They caught the kid doing something disgusting out under the bleachers at the high school stadium and he was sent home from the grammar school across the street. He was eight years old then. He’d been doing it for years.”
Come with me back to 1971. I know it’s a scarily long time ago, and many of you weren’t even born, but picture a wee Scots lad, 13 years old, and a science fiction geek in love with Asimov, Clarke, Wells and Wyndham. That’s me that is. I’d also read a few of Dennis Wheatley’s books by then, and I’d been thrilled by the horror / satanic aspects of the old bigot’s work, but his upper-crust characters were so far removed from my Scottish council estate life that I couldn’t identify with them at all.
One day that summer I was in the local library looking for something new as I’d burned my way through my aforementioned favorite authors. A name caught my eye – Sturgeon, which I knew was a kind of fish, and thought was a strange name for a person. But it said it was science fiction on the front, so I took it home.
I quickly found out it wasn’t really science fiction at all – but I was hooked after the very first paragraph anyway, so that didn’t matter any more. The Dreaming Jewels isn’t really science fiction. But it’s not really fantasy either, or horror. It’s what gets called Dark Fantasy these days. I imagine back when it was first published in 1950 they had a bit of trouble classifying it, containing as it does child abuse, sex changes, murder, infidelity and some close to the bone innuendo. It also has magic, carnivals, puppets, scenery chewing bad guys, extraterrestrial lifeforms, acts of selfless heroism, and a lovely twist ending that fits just right.
And there is definite horror along the way, including the aforementioned child abuse, and one of the best descriptions of what it means to be a frightened child I’ve ever come across. It’s all quite Bradburyesque in some ways, but with a harder edge – less misty sentimentality for a bygone era, more down and dirty.
As for the plot – on simple reading, it too is Bradburyesque. An 8-year-old boy named Horton “Horty” Bluett, runs away from his abusive family and takes refuge among the “strange people” in a traveling circus. Carrying only a smashed jack-in-the-box named Junky, Horty is hidden away, and disguised as a girl. The owner of the carnival, Pierre Monetre has discovered intelligent extraterrestrial life in the form of crystal-like jewels and is attempting to use them to get magical powers. As it turns out, Horty is the key to Monetre’s plans, and will be the only one powerful enough to stop him.
Now, that reads very pulpy, and in some respects it is, but Sturgeon knew how to put flesh on simple bones. You believe in all the characters in this book, some grotesque, some plain evil, others full of love and hate and despair all at the same time.
That first read opened my eyes to what was possible in genre fiction outside the names I mentioned earlier. It led me almost directly to Bradbury, and to Lovecraft a few months later. A couple of years after that some chap named King came along and changed everything again, but I’ve never forgotten the impact The Dreaming Jewels had on me.
It stands up well to rereading too. I read it again today before writing this and was drawn in all over again. It’s a lovely, lovely book, and I recommend it to all horror fans.
This review first appeared in THE BOOK THAT MADE ME section of the GINGER NUTS OF HORROR site in JAn 2014 ( http://gingernutsofhorror.com/books-t… )