"The Arabian Nightmare is obscene and terrible, monotonous and yet horrific. It comes to its victims every night...." Thus the blurb writer, grappling with an exceedingly peculiar book. "As though an mediaeval historian (which the author is) had joined forces with Jorge Luis Borges and Philip K.Dick to rewrite The Arabian Nights as a horror novel." Thus a struggling reviewer – oh, all right, me – trying to convey its flavour in an 80-word viewdata page. As you might gather, I liked it.
The setting is Cairo in 1486, oozing with rich Oriental sleaze. Cairo is inner as well as mundane space, a labyrinth of streets and dreams in which the sort-of-hero, Balain of Norwich, flounders helplessly. Does he wake or sleep? Why does he repeatedly awake (or does he?) with his mouth full of blood? Is he suffering from the dreaded Arabian Nightmare, possibly spread by the sinister Father of Cats, ever-unsleeping researcher of the Alam al-Mithal, world of dreams? Don't ask:
There are some who hold that talking about it, even thinking about it, is enough to attract it and stimulate its attacks. For this reason we do not name it. But even this may not be enough. Therefore I advised that no one should read this book unless he is already aware of what it is, and let those who know, forget, if they can.
The Nightmare, according to certain sources, is an infinity of torment experienced in sleep. The sufferer, awakening, remembers nothing of this horror and goes all unaware to the next night's hell. However, sources may not be reliable. Late in the book, a severed head gives five contradictory explanations of one of the more enigmatically nasty scenes, saying: "There are always more causes than events in the Alam al-Mithal. This generates great pressure...."
Dreams within dreams, stories within stories: but the author has a nasty way of upsetting the ordered symmetry of Arabian Nights narration. His hierarchy of dreams isn't simple; it contains what Douglas Hofstadter calls Strange Loops. If Balian is suffering from the Arabian Nightmare which is never remembered, his remembered nightmares can't be this ultimate damnation – unless of course he only dreams that he wakes. A storyteller, who as the narrator of the book seems a decently stable landmark, dies at a most perplexing moment ("I did not intend it to be the story of my death," he later complains). Laughing Dervishes confound the wise with Bertrand Russell's paradoxes, and courtesans indulge in Freudian dream interpretation. An appalling order of leper knights is deeply involved in the battle for the Alam al-Mithal, now pressing dangerously close to the real world. All is subject to change without notice.
"The Arabian Nightmare is a guide to the Orient of the mind," the blurb concludes, and that's about it: the meaning of the title keeps shifting and expanding, until it stands for the darker side of that whole complex of fantastic romance conjured up by words like "Cairo", "Orient" or "Arabian Nights". If you like historical fantasy and booby-trapped reality, grab the book.
Afterthought, 1989: This review originally remarked: "Because it comes from an obscure small press, The Arabian Nightmare's cover isn't grotty airbrush work but a marvellously daft old engraving of dervishes." In due course I had a letter from obscure small press Dedalus Ltd, saying that the reviews, in particular Brian Stableford's and mine, had helped swing a major reissue from non-obscure Penguin/Viking. This cheered me up for days, and leaves you no excuse for not finding a copy.