The terms “dark fantasy” and “horror” are often considered interchangeable. The pronounced fantasy elements in “dark fantasy” can help draw some distinctions between the concepts. In Dead Set by Richard Kadrey, out from Harper Voyager, horror indeed plays a significant part in the narrative, but the novel is primarily a grim fantasy. The story is a bit of a Goth-Grunge take on the film version of The Wizard of Oz, although Kadrey’s protagonist Zoe isn’t an over-the-rainbow inadvertent heroine. Instead, she is an anguished savior in a phantasmagoric underworld.
Zoe is an imaginative teenager who is severely depressed. Her father has recently died, and the financial limbo resulting from his demise causes a change of residence. Moving with her mom from Northern California’s wealthy suburb of Danville to the San Francisco Tenderloin District is a difficult transition. The relocation adds to Zoe’s dramatic despondency: She has engaged in cutting herself. Her much put upon mother, who has been out of the work force since Zoe’s birth, must find a job to support them. This leaves Zoe ample time to wander the crime-ridden neighborhood. Finding a vintage record store with a peculiar proprietor, she begins a bizarre interaction with the odd man.
In a room away from the proprietor’s more conventional wares, are recordings that are the literal histories of dead souls. The records contain the deceased person’s visceral memories, thoughts, and emotions. All of which can be intimately experienced by the listener who, during the process, virtually inhabits the soul of the dead person. And thus personally accesses the deceased’s vivid feelings of whatever is occurring at a specific time. Included in the macabre playlist chosen for Zoe are selections from her father’s life. In exchange for listening privileges, the proprietor asks for certain things from the girl: a lock of her hair, one of her teeth, some of her blood. When she intentionally shortchanges him on one of the demands, she forfeits the link to her father. Determined to locate her dad’s soul in the afterlife, Zoe traces him to a netherworld governed by a terrifying lupine queen and her vile minions.
Aided by a companion from her dreams, the adolescent fiercely fights those who hold the souls in captivity. When it appears to be a losing battle, there is this lamentation: “It was all being taken away, the good things in her life and now her dreams, too. And when even her dreams are gone, would there be anything left of her?”
Author Kadrey has created a marvelous character in edgy, vulnerable Zoe. An eloquently bleak despair emanates from her. Dead Set isn’t devoid of hope, or love, or connection. What stays in the mind, though, are the beautifully rendered dark components of this fantasy. Whether depicting the eerie San Francisco record store, or the elaborate domain of the evil queen, Richard Kadrey is at his finest when he delves into the darkside.