James Blaylock’s earlier novels were noted for their chaotic plot structures, which tended to disintegrate as the absurdity of his invention piled up. There was no doubt that Blaylock was a fine writer with an inspired imagination, but his chaotic approach tended to diminish appreciation of his work. With Land of Dreams, he seemed finally to get into his stride. The pacing is still hectic, but the plot line is coherent, if complex.
Land of Dreams owes more than a little to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962), with the similar theme of gothic transformation wrought within a town by the presence of a carnival. In Blaylock’s narrative, the impetus for change and transformation clearly comes from the solstice itself, with its implicit magic, rather than simply from the carnival.
Curiously, the novel also seems to have certain resonances with John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945), with the local doctor, Dr. Jensen, engaged like Steinbeck’s Doc in collecting marine animals for sale to biological suppliers. Certainly both novels express a joy in the simple pleasures of small-town life and its characters, and both books have an eye for the absurdities of those characters and places. Dr. Jensen shares Doc’s enthusiasm for curiosities of all kinds and sits at variance with the other inhabitants of Rio Dell, much like Doc in Cannery Row, though most are fond of him.
Blaylock’s taste for the grotesque and eccentric is at the fore throughout the book. His story has a strong flavor of the melodramatic or pantomimic about it, with the constant disappearances and reappearances of Jack’s father, as well as of Jack and Skeezix; Augustus Harbin as the most authentically villainous of villains; and a very satisfactory happy ending in which the orphanage is no more and Jack is restored to his parents.
Blaylock’s relish for the absurd and eccentric has given him a strong following among science-fiction readers who appreciate his unstinting flow of ideas and strange images. He gives no allegiance to either the fantasy or the science-fiction genre, mixing literary tropes with great skill and enjoyment. Land of Dreams is among his more accessible works, marrying weirdness with a stronger narrative line than found in his earlier novels. He is certainly one of the liveliest writers working in either genre.