The Night Clock, a novel categorized in the horror genre, portrays a struggle to preserve mankind's ability to dream. With the support of their Paladins, or mentors, the Firmament Surgeons battle against evil forces. Their mission: to retain control over Dark Time. If they lose, "people will stop dreaming, and they'll stop caring" (p. 189). This, in turn, will lead to an "age of despair" (p. 150), for "without dreams there is madness, chaos" (p. 150).
The initial chapters of the novel indeed establish an understanding that something is amiss with the world. There are strange occurrences, eerie sightings, and an overarching sense of despair. Are these just the imaginings of the drunkard Rob Litchin, the schizophrenic Les Branch, and others like them? There may be a temptation to think this, initially, but gradually we come to understand that these sightings—this madness and chaos—are a manifestation of the greater struggle over the fate of mankind. The deeper we get into the novel, the more the reader understands what is at stake. Momentum is built through the increasingly fierce skirmishes between the Firmament Surgeons and their antagonists. This pacing pulls the reader forward, particularly in the latter chapters of the book, fuelling a desire to finish the story and find out how things end.
At first, nothing is certain. Meloy builds several layers of meaning into even the book's title. First and foremost, it is through the Night Clock that mankind can maintain control over Dark Time. However, the Night Clock isn't an object per se, but rather "what happens when enough of [the Firmament Surgeons] come together" (p. 149). The reuniting of the Firmament Surgeons to run the Night Clock once again is part of the novel's culminating action. The Night Clock is also the name of a deserted and derelict bar from which enemy forces periodically swarm, to be beaten back by the Firmament Surgeons and their allies. Finally, Meloy also weaves in periodic and ominous references to a physical Night Clock, building a sense of foreboding and urgency with descriptions such as: "The Night Clock hangs from rusting chains, from the roof of some immense and desolate terminal, its painted face upon a disc of slats of wood cut from reclaimed gallows planks" (p. 82).
In their quest to restart the Night Clock, the Firmament Surgeons must fend off in turn the devil-in-dreams, the Autoscopes, and the Toyceivers. The devil-in-dreams—which hates, loathes, and fears the character Daniel in particular—is chief among the enemy forces. The Autoscopes are fallen Firmament Surgeons, who have succumbed to the temptations of the devil-in-dreams. Toyceivers, meanwhile, are monsters created by the Autoscopes, and take many forms. Some contain hints of the familiar (think spider- and bird-like creatures) while others are uniquely bizarre, including a beast with "a thick grey neck and a tiny head, all teeth, like a cricket ball studded with fangs" (p. 182). Included among the Toyceivers is a parka-clad human-like character named Cade, who has fallen out of favor with the dark forces, and attempts to win his way back by committing evil acts.
Part of the novel's action centres around getting Claire, a woman about to give birth to a girl destined to become a Firmanent Surgeon, to a place of safety where she can go into labor. Her unborn daughter, Chloe, is crucial to the war: at the time The Night Clock occurs, the ranks of the Firmament Surgeons have dwindled to a critically low level. Their work, however, has never been more important: by creating and maintaining places called "Quays," the Firmament Surgeons provide "hope and love" (p. 188). The devil-in-dreams, the Autoscopes, and the Toyceivers, however, make incursions onto the Quays, with the intention of despoiling them.
Building the reader's understanding of The Night Clock's complex world is achieved without resorting to a chronological recitation. One chapter is recounted in first person by Daniel; the remainder, aside from a brief prologue, are in the third person. Meloy utilizes past and present tense, and capitalizes on the opportunity provided by relative newcomers to the conflict, like Chloe and the psychiatric nurse Paul Trevena, to develop the reader's understanding at the same time as these characters are themselves discovering the essential facts. Meloy even utilizes a story within a story, when the book Junction Creature—a story about the Firmament Surgeon Alex and his Paladin, Uncle Sandy—is introduced to the tale as important background. The book is read to Chloe by the dog Bix, who along with Bronze John the tiger is able to speak when the action takes place in the dream world—and whose readings help Chloe (and the reader) understand and prepare for her role in the struggle.
As momentum builds in this way throughout the novel, there are also frequent jumps of scene and viewpoint within a given chapter. Despite these, The Night Clock maintains an comprehensible flow, so that the changes in viewpoint and tense provide variety and intrigue rather than creating confusion. Paul Trevena, for example, becomes one of the key characters. When three of his patients appear to have committed suicide, and a fourth has attempted to do so, Trevena begins to question his own abilities. As he learns about the existential conflict between the Firmament Surgeons and their enemies, Trevena gets drawn into the battle himself. His first glimpse of understanding is provided through Daniel, who is prominent among the Firmament Surgeons due to his ability to control Dark Time. After Daniel's father himself committed suicide, Daniel also struggled with mental health issues, and spent time in an institution. It was here that he encountered the schizophrenic Les Branch, his Paladin, who helped him learn about his powers. Daniel also receives ongoing support from the one-eyed Elizabeth, whom he met while on holiday as a child with his parents.
The Night Clock is Meloy's first full-length novel, but in an interview in The Qwillery Meloy notes that "most of the characters appear in other stories I've written over the years, so they all have their own back stories."  Clearly, a depth of thought underlies the characters in The Night Clock, and they are stronger and more convincing for it. The characters have distinctive voices and behaviours. For example, the alcoholic Rob Litchin employs liberal use of the f-word as noun, verb, and adjective—but he is the only character that does so with significant frequency. Bix's mannerisms are unmistakeably canine. Trevena's musings include references to psychiatric theory. Even characters who make brief appearances, like the hulking, taciturn Firmament Surgeon Bismuth, come across as fully rounded and distinct.
Meloy's professional background in the psychiatric field perhaps supports his ability to depict convincing and empathetic characters. It also lends authenticity to the novel’s references to psychiatric cases and issues—Trevena, as noted earlier, is a psychiatric nurse, and several of the characters struggle with mental health issues at various points in the story. When Daniel experiences psychotic visions, for example, his doctor deems that the best way to treat his symptoms is through electroconvulsive treatment. As a result, Daniel temporarily loses his mastery over Dark Time. Though the medical system deems that Daniel must be institutionalized, his experiences of the Quays and the monsters that threaten them are real—causing us to question traditional notions about the line between reality and hallucination. In addition, Meloy's writing invites one to take a broader view of individuals who, like Les Branch, are struggling with mental health issues. In an interview in Risingshadow Meloy notes, "Most people with genuine mental illness are frightened, not dangerous."  Les Branch kills his rabbits and pigeons because he is concerned that, due to his worsening illness, "he couldn't look after them properly" (p. 45). This prompts Trevena to observe, "Les wasn't cruel, he wasn't a sociopath; he just got scared" (p. 45). Meloy's handing of his characters, then, opens the reader to greater empathy.
Even beyond the depiction of characters with mental health issues, one gets the sense in reading The Night Clock that the author is someone who understands what makes people tick. For example, Meloy describes the gradual decline in budding alcoholic Rob Litchin's fortunes by commenting on the fact that he has only one key remaining on his keyring. This contrasts from his previous state:
Once Rob had been the owner of a fistful of keys, the like of which any man should possess; house keys front and back, garage key, car keys, suitcase key, gun cabinet key, shed key, a whole bunch of small metal emblems giving access to things and spaces owned, collected and valued. (p. 69)
The keys serve as an insightful metaphor for how far Rob has fallen.
Indeed, subtle humor is woven throughout the book. Sometimes, this comes in the depictions of the characters. To stay with Rob: "[He] likes to sit at the sun-dappled bar in late afternoon and watch the place fill up. He relaxes. He can stop and think, or think he's thinking" (p. 26). Depictions of objects also contain, at times, this touch of humor: "A thermos flask sat erect between them like a dutiful tartan-clad pet" (p. 84).
Meloy's greatest strength lies, then, in the originality and power of his prose. For example, a pub is described thus: "the edges of its flat roof were tinselled with rolls of razor wire" (p. 18). The word "tinsel" is not one normally associated with razor wire, but the metaphor fits in this case. In another example, "Crows and doves, woodpigeons, starlings and magpies, all turned and shoaled together in total formation. It was as if the sky was folding and unfolding itself" (p. 178). Meloy's knack for breathing life into language enables the reader to build a mental image as well feeling an emotional response. While some writers tend to focus on how things look to the detriment of the other senses, Meloy uses sound and even smell extensively in further developing his imagery. In these depictions, he continues to come up with unique methods of description without relying on overdone metaphors and similes. For example, when Trevena and a co-worker are entering the house of one of Trevena's patients, Meloy describes it thus: "the room smelt of biscuits gone soft at the bottom of a barrel" (p. 47).
This love of the incongruous goes further than simile, of course. A dog reading a book to an unborn child; a human who can control Dark Time; and, oh, a talking hermit crab called Bert—who, by the way, achieves this feat of loquacity despite having been dead for years. Yes, some of the concepts seem far-fetched. Yet The Night Clock is loyal to its own internal logic. There is enough of an element of truth in the novel’s setup (the importance of dreams, for example) to enable us to set aside our doubts about its wilder peregrinations. In addition, much of the action takes place while characters are in a dreamlike state. This supports the inherent believability of the story, since it is by its nature unbound by the laws of physics.
I have only two quibbles with The Night Clock. The first is that, due to the complexity and richness of the imagery, I tripped up on a few occasions and had to reread a sentence to capture the meaning—particularly in the case of very long sentences. This didn't happen more than a handful of times, however, and was an inconvenience I shouldered gladly in exchange for the opportunity to enjoy Meloy's use of language.
The second issue was that I found the first few chapters to be overly crude for my taste. A barbaric act committed in the first chapter comes full circle by the end of the book, rendering it more understandable, although the initial shock lingers. In the context of the entire book, I understood the inclusion of the scene. Other references, however, had a level of coarseness that went beyond my preference. Rob, for example, comments that his girlfriend "gives a stupendous gobble" (p. 25), leading him to reflect that "there's nothing like the feeling of popping against the spongy ring of tonsils at the back of her throat" (p. 26). In another scene, Trevena is tempted to hit on his co-worker: "And a voice in his head whispered. You want to eat her pussy" (p. 47).
These are just a few examples of the sections that came across as gratuitously crude. I found this off-putting, and had the trend continued for the entire book I'd have found the novel a tough slog. However, the tone changed around Chapter 5. It wasn't that crude references disappeared entirely, but they were moderated by the other activity. In an interview in Black Static, Meloy himself notes that his writing is "either dark, coarse and a bit loutish, or it's gentle, reflective and more lyrical."  I would classify elements of the first few chapters as leaning toward the former. This wouldn't be an issue for all readers, but there are some who might be put off by the initial chapters and be tempted to abandon the book early on.
Those comments aside, I found The Night Clock to be an engrossing story, richly told—the kind of tale that stays with the reader long after the final page has been turned. Meloy weaves a tapestry of language that both sings and singes, and he employs fresh and powerful imagery to present an epic struggle with a building tension. If you are interested in an original read with likeable characters and a compelling plot, then you won't go wrong with The Night Clock.
- Interview with Paul Meloy, author of The Night Clock. The Qwillery (November 4, 2015). [return]
- An Interview with Paul Meloy. Risingshadow (November 18, 2015). [return]
- Paul Meloy: Eight Questions. Black Static (July 16, 2009). [return]
Lisa Timpf is a freelance writer and science fiction enthusiast who lives in Simcoe, Ontario, Canada. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in a variety of venues, including New Myths, Third Flatiron, Outposts of Beyond, The Martian Wave, and Scifaikuest.
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