The latest from Toronto actor and writer Adrienne Kress is a departure from her usual good-natured adventures. Dreams Come to Life is a horror novel intended for young audiences that’s creepy enough for older readers.
Buddy, the narrator, is 17 and lives with his mother in a tiny apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. It’s the summer of 1946, but the postwar boom has passed them by. Buddy’s mother works for Mr. Schwartz, sewing precut fabric into suits and jackets, and Buddy delivers the finished products all over the city. It’s not a terrible existence. “There was green in other parts of the city. Trees and stuff. And the fancy neighborhoods didn’t smell like piss. And when I brought a finished suit to the Upper East Side, I could take a walk in the park and dip my feet in the boat lake.”
Buddy’s life changes when he delivers a suit to a nondescript building in Midtown, arriving in the midst of a blackout. There he meets Joey Drew, owner of a down-on-its-luck animation studio that is eking by with cartoons featuring the vaguely sinister Bendy. Drew – who is carefully monitoring the supplies of ink and paper – hires Buddy on the spot, doubling his pay. “I get feelings about people, kid,” Joey says, and he’s right: Buddy has dreamed of being a cartoonist, and in this one moment, as the title says, his dreams have come to life.
But if there’s one thing scary stories teach us, it’s to be careful what we wish for.
Kress builds a genuinely disturbing world within the walls of the studio, which is complete with deep shadows, mysterious noises, strange people, and puzzling disappearances. Buddy is a perfect guide, naive and trusting, dutiful to his mother and loyal to his neighbourhood. Through his eyes, we experience the poverty and anti-Semitism of the times first-hand; the issues don’t dominate the narrative but add to the texture of Buddy’s life. And, crucially, he is always slightly behind the reader when it comes to asking the right questions and seeing through the clearly misleading answers. By the time everything starts to come together, it’s too late.
While Dreams Come to Life is a tie-in to the popular horror-puzzle video game Bendy and the Ink Machine, Kress delivers a chiller that stands on its own. Fans of the game will likely find references and depths which the uninitiated reader will miss, but the novel more than satisfies as horror fiction custom-built for the 12-and-up set.