Land of Dreams by James P. Blaylock fantasy book reviewsLand of Dreams by James P. Blaylock

James P. Blaylock is a fabulist, a teller of magic realist tales that reframe our everyday world in more colorful, fanciful, sinister, and whimsical ways. His style and themes often overlap with the works of Tim Powers and they have collaborated on several stories and even have shared the character William Ashbless, which is no surprise since they met as students at Cal State Fullerton. There they also befriended author K.W. Jeter (who coined the term “steampunk” and wrote perhaps the earliest full-length example, 1987’s Infernal Devices), and they are sometimes grouped together as “steampunks”. They also became friends with the great Philip K. Dick, and were fictionalized in PKD’s autobiographical VALIS and Radio Free Albemuth.

As for Blaylock’s own body of work, he has a number of notable series, including the whimsical BALUMNIA fantasy series (The Elfin Ship, The Disappearing Dwarf, The Stone Giant), the steampunk NARABONDO/LANGDON ST. IVES series (The Digging Leviathan, Homunculus, Lord Kelvin’s Machine), and HOLY RELICS series (The Last Coin, The Paper Grail, All the Bells on Earth). However, some of his stand-alone novels are also worthy of mention and Land of Dreams (1987) is probably the most notable.

Land of Dreams is about a small town in coastal California, three adventurous young orphans, a sinister carnival that comes to town on a mysterious train, a giant pair of shoes and spectacles that wash onto the shore, tiny men like mice, grave-diggers, ghosts, skeletons, frightening carnival rides, strange dreams, and other fantastic happenings. It reads like a dream-inspired adventure, at times whimsical but with macabre elements and some genuinely evil characters. It could be viewed as YA since the main characters are that age group, but in tone it works equally well for teens and adults. I’ve had it for a long time on my shelf (almost 30 years to be exact), and finally got around to it since this and many other of Blaylock’s books are now available at Audible. The narrator is Kevin T. Collins, an actor who has done many audiobooks, and I think he was well suited to the young protagonists of the story.

After reading just a few chapters of Land of Dreams, any fan of Ray Bradbury’s classic coming-of-age small town dark fantasy Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962), which Bill, Jana and I did a Book Chat on (click here for review), will see the repeated homages to that novel. Bradbury’s book was about a sinister carnival steaming into a small Midwestern town at midnight with a piercing whistle scream, announcing autumn and the approach of Halloween, run by the creepy Mr. Dark (covered in terrifying tattoos), and two 13-year old boys, Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway (notice the dark undertones their names).

Though the locations are different, both carnivals are associated with a dark train and the distinctive notes of a calliope. Blaylock’s protagonists are young teens Jack, Skeezix, and Helen, and they first hear the whistle of a train comes across the broken-down oceanside tracks of their Northern California town of Rio Dell during the Solstice, which comes every 12 years and ushers in various strange phenomenon.

Both Bradbury and Blaylock are accomplished stylists, and though it may be unfair to compare any writer to Bradbury’s poetic and incredibly rich prose, I thought a good way to give readers an idea would be to highlight some passages dealing with the arrival of the train. The parallels are clear, and Blaylock makes no attempt to hide his source of inspiration. Homage, pastiche, tribute — however you describe it, the influence is pervasive.

Something Wicked This Way Comes: 

Going away, away, the calliope pipes shimmered with star explosions, but no one sat at the high key-board. The wind, sluicing ice-water air in the pipes, made the music. The boys ran. The train curved away, gonging its undersea funeral bell, sunk, rusted, green-mossed, tolling, tolling. Then the engine whistle blew a great steam whiff and Will broke out in pearls of ice.


Way late at night Will had heard — how often? — train whistles jetting steam along the rim of sleep, forlorn, alone and far, no matter how near they came. Sometimes he woke to find tears on his cheek, asked why, lay back, listened and thought, Yes! they make me cry, going east, going west, the trains of far gone in country deeps they drown in tides of sleep that escape the towns.


Those trains and their grieving sounds were lost forever between stations, not remembering where they had been, not guessing where they might go, exhaling their last pale breaths over the horizon, gone. So it was with all trains, ever.


Yet this train’s whistle! The wails of a lifetime were gathered in it from other nights in other slumbering years; the howl of moon-dreamed dogs, the seep of river-cold winds through January porch screens which stopped the blood, a thousand fire sirens weeping, or worse! The outgoing shreds of breath, the protests of a billion people dead or dying, not wanting to be dead, their groans, their sighs, burst over the earth! 

All authors take their cue from the works of those before them — that is the nature of writing. So I didn’t have a problem with it, since Blaylock’s story takes its own direction. Many of Blaylock’s stories are set in his native California, and he excels at descriptions of the ocean, sea winds, and coastline. So below you can see how he adds his own distinctive touch to the arrival of the train:

Land of Dreams: 

They were twenty yards from the shoe when the shriek of a train whistle erupted from the hill above…


The train tracks were a ruin, and had been for as long as any of them could remember. They were rust-pitted and twisted, and a good many of the ties had long ago fallen prey to termites and to sliding hillsides. But there was something in the night, in the rain and the wind and the tide, in the dark bulk of the giant shoe that sat like a behemoth on the sand, that made the impossible appearance of the train seem half expected.


There was another whistle blast and the screech of brakes, and from where Jack crouched in the cavern he could see steam roiling from beneath the cars. The train was slowing. It wound around a curve of track, appearing for the moment that it took to clatter across the trestle, then almost at once disappearing beyond the rain and the redwoods that climbed down the hill toward the sea. One by one the hazy cars lurched past, dark and low and open and freighted with strange, angular machinery.


Jack shook his head, realizing suddenly that he was shaking with cold too. Wind off the ocean sailed straight into the cavern, swirled round in back of it, then sailed out again. It was drier than it had been on the open beach, but at least there they’d had their minds on something other than the cold and wet. The chill seemed to have come with the train, carried, perhaps, on the steam that whirled away into the misty night. 

The subsequent events of Land of Dreams differ from Something Wicked enough to make them distinctive stories. Blaylock’s protagonists seek to find the origins of the giant shoe and spectacles that washed up on the beach, and since they are also orphans, the story explores their desire to find their parents as well. Their encounters with the sinister master of the carnival are not nearly as terrifying as Jim and Will’s epic battles with Mr. Dark and his creepy minions (particularly the Dust Witch in the library at midnight). Blaylock has a much more playful approach, so when his characters finally discover what the Land of Dreams is and how it ties in with the mysterious events of the Solstice, the story is more fairy-tale like with elements of Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels. Overall, fans of Bradbury, Powers, and other fabulists who transform our everyday lives into something magical will enjoy this one.

Published in 1987. The 12-year solstice has come. And with it, a sinister carnival brings a new sense of terror and wonder to a small coastal town. An enormous shoe is washed up on the shore… a tiny man disguises himself as a mouse…a crow provides eyes for a blind innkeeper… and three curious adventurers discover the gateway to the Land of Dreams – where you don’t always get what you want, you get what you deserve.… Set in the same world as his award-winning story Paper Dragons, this book portrays a magical atmosphere of the 12-year solstice as it comes to a northern California coastal town.