Humor and horror taste great together, a fact Paul Meloy knows well. The British author's debut novel The Night Clock strikes exactly that balance, with the added perk of dark, far-flung fantasy. Set in contemporary England, it revolves around Phil Trevena, a 40-something who — like Meloy himself — works as a psychiatric nurse, counseling the mentally ill. When one of Trevena's patients commits suicide in a foiled mass-shooting attempt, his already unstable life begins to unravel; to make matters worse, a man named Daniel shows up to inform him that sinister forces beyond the veil of reality have it in for poor Phil.
Meloy has drawn on his professional experience before in some of his acclaimed short stories published over the past decade. But in The Night Clock he projects harrowing permutations of the human psyche onto a nightmarish canvas, one that leaves just enough space for dry wit and gallows laughter. In a clever, vivid voice that's part Irvine Welsh, part Neil Gaiman — or maybe Clive Barker as adapted by Edgar Wright — Meloy slowly expands the parameters of what Phil has always thought was real; it turns out Daniel has secrets and abilities almost beyond comprehension, and Phil is connected to a group of beings who can traverse Dark Time, an ethereal element necessary for the proper regulation of dreams — and ultimately order — in the universe. But there are chaotic entities called Autoscopes who have other plans for Phil and his growing legion of allies.
Though he's a superb short-story writer, Meloy's strengths unfortunately don't translate as well into novel-length work. As dizzying and immersive as his setting and premise are, The Night Clock feels simultaneously skimpy and overstuffed. For such a short book, it's packed with characters, too many of whom are given their own points of view, which only serves to water down the main characters, Phil and Daniel — who both gasp for more oxygen on the page. To Meloy's credit, he writes inner and outer dialogue with flair and soul, not to mention the occasional deadpan punch line. But without enough time spent on the leads, the cast devolves into a throng, with new characters being introduced right up until the last 10 pages.
Meloy's tangle of conceits doesn't help. At various points in The Night Clock, characters stop to deliver exposition about Dark Time, Autoscopes, Firmament Surgeons, Hypnopomps, Toyceivers and many of the other strange ideas and denizens of his mythologized world. That exposition, though, is often sketchy and rushed. Not that Phil notices. He accepts Daniel's outlandish propositions way too quickly: "There was something utterly compelling about the man," Meloy writes, "and Trevena was experienced enough to recognize actual truth from the delusional truths believed and expounded upon by a proper madman." Just like that, Phil is ready to swallow all manner of ostensible impossibility. It might be expedient for the plot, but it feels too easy, and it only muddles an already cluttered cupboard of a book.
Granted, it's a cupboard full of treats and surprises. Meloy's ability to veer from cosmic dread to downbeat comedy to quiet sensitivity in the span of a paragraph makes for a thrilling ride, as does his wild splay of imagery and concepts, including "the Angel of Death in a machine" and a locomotive named Railgrinder that travels places barely imaginable.
But the book struggles with itself, unsure whether it should be more conventional or far weirder. At least the ratio of humor to horror is ideal, which also helps gloss over some pacing problems; Phil and Daniel don't even meet each other until a third of the way through the story, and by that point, Meloy has limited time to frantically unpack all the huge notions he's trying to sell. As impressive as Meloy's secondary characters and metaphysical speculations can be, The Night Clock takes its sweet time getting to the good stuff.
Jason Heller is a senior writer atThe A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.