Bad Dreams by A. Kale
Publisher: VHS Books | Release Date: Dec. 7, 2018 | Pages: 160 pages
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
If you were a kid in the 90’s you probably spent quite a bit of time at a video rental store looking for a fun movie to watch. And if you were a horror fan, you probably focused your attention in the section with the best VHS covers in the entire store. A. Kale’s Bad Dreams is a solid coming-of-age story about a horror obsessed teenager dealing with the normal struggles of teenage-dom as well as being haunted by a monster straight out of a cheesy straight-to-video horror movie.
Kale’s main character Tom is a lovable, endearing, sweet kid. Within probably two chapters I could relate to this teenager that would stay up late watching VHS tapes, hang out at the mom and pop rental store, and write stories. When we meet Tom, he is coming off a pretty bad case of pneumonia which has put his friends and family on constant worry mode. It flares up at times, usually during the most inopportune times, and causes you to grip the pages just a bit tighter, hoping that he doesn’t go into remission. Kale captures the pain of a teenager trying to keep up with his friends, not upset his mother, as well as dealing with the dread of a monster that may or may not be real. It all adds up to a complex character that you’ll swear was in your high school.
As Tom deals with the trials of being a teenager he is also being haunted by a wolf man in a suit and tie. Kale dolls out information at just the right pace to keep us on our toes. It might appear while Tom is by himself, it might haunt his dreams, it might just be a voice whispered in his ears. Kale ties the monster in perfectly with Tom’s love of horror movies, having the wolf man’s image appear in a horror magazine, then in a movie. I was a bit confused as to how Tom was able to see the monster before finding it in the magazine, and there is a reveal a bit later on that doesn’t make much sense. I like the idea of where the monster comes from, but the way it is presented didn’t work for me.
The book is set in 1990, which I appreciate. I think we’ve hit the limit of having everything set in the 80’s, so it was a bit refreshing being able to look beyond that overused decade (I know it’s only 1990, but I think it counts). We get just the right amount of references to music and movies to set us in the time-frame without becoming a trip down memory lane. This also comes into play while Tom is at the video rental place, studying posters and movie titles, asking the clerk for the haunted VHS tape. We even get to see him go to a library and pull out a couple of movie guides (for those who don’t know, they were giant dictionary sized books that had bite-sized reviews for almost every single movie in existence). These little touches go a long way in framing the story and injecting a bit of realism into the plot.
When you look past the references, monster, and main character, you do see a couple of flaws. Despite the creepiness of the monster, it never felt dangerous. There were frightening moments, but nothing to make us believe that Tom was in danger. Honestly, the scenes where Tom was dealing with the trials and tribulations of being a teenager or when he realizes that his parents were not doing great were terrifying. I don’t know if the monster could really compare to the fear of ending up back in the hospital. Then there is Tom’s friend disappearing in the third act. We get an explanation, but it’s pretty weird to replace him with a side character that we’ve only had two scenes with previously. I don’t think any of this ruins the book as a whole, I still thoroughly enjoyed it, but these points do stick out when compared to the rest of the story.
Bad Dreams is a love letter to VHS horror movies that’ll have you itching to pull out your VCR, call your best friend, and stay up late watching the good, bad, and weird movies of your youth.