Read an Excerpt From Shaun Hamill’s The Dissonance

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Dissonance, a new contemporary fantasy novel by Shaun Hamill, out from Pantheon on July 23rd.

“You can never go home again,” the saying goes—but Hal, Athena, and Erin have to. In high school, the three were students of the eccentric Professor Marsh, trained in a secret system of magic known as the Dissonance, which is built around harnessing negative emotions: alienation, anger, pain. Then, twenty years ago, something happened that shattered their coven, scattering them across the country, stuck in mundane lives, alone.

But now, terrifying signs and portents (not to mention a pointed Facebook invite) have summoned them back to Clegg, Texas. There, their paths will collide with that of Owen, a closeted teenager from Alabama whose aborted cemetery seance with his crush summoned something far worse: a murderous entity whose desperate, driving purpose includes kidnapping Owen to serve as its Renfield. As Owen tries to outwit his new master, and Hal, Athena, and Erin reckon with how the choices they made as teens might connect to the apocalyptic event unfurling over the Lone Star State, shocking alliances form, old and new romances brew, and three unsuccessful adults and one frightened teen are all that stand between reality and oblivion. 


Twenty-one years after killing his mother and one year after killing a man in a bar fight, Hal Isaac stands on the steps of St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Vandergriff, Texas, and smokes a cigarette.

His AA meeting has just let out. The sun has set, but the day’s heat remains like a physical force pushing down on his body, juicing him for sweat. He could hop into his car and crank the A/C, but he always gets a headache during meetings, and a cigarette grants his mind a few minutes to unfurl. It’s the main reason he took up the habit. Cigarettes give you a chance to press pause on life.

He’s not the only one who feels this way. Probably two thirds of the meeting linger on and around the steps, clumped in groups of twos and threes, their tendrils of smoke rising into the oppressive air. Hal doesn’t stand with the others, but he appreciates their presence. They’re a buffer between him and loneliness. Their chatter washes over him while he studies the expensive-looking houses across the street. Do the upper-middle-class occupants look out their windows at this time of night? What do they think of the tableau of fuckups on the church steps?


He hadn’t noticed the woman approach. Susie. A new face. Been coming for a few weeks, since Social Services took her kid.

“Hey,” Hal says around his cigarette.

“Congrats.” She nods to the chip in his left hand, the one they gave him at the end of tonight’s meeting. He’s been twirling it between his fingers like a close-up magician ever since. He stops and lets the aluminum circle fall into his open palm. It’s the gaudy blue you’d expect to see tossed from a Mardi Gras float, except for the triangle etched around a big roman numeral I.

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The Dissonance
The Dissonance

The Dissonance

Shaun Hamill

“One year,” she says. “There are days when I think I’ll be lucky to make it to six weeks.”

“One day at a time.” AA’s full of these little cliches. It takes as long as it takes. It works if you work it. In his old life, Hal, a Jew—if not a very good one—would have rolled his eyes at the pure WASP-y Christianity/motivational poster of it all. Now these trite aphorisms hold his sanity together.

Susie pulls a pack of cigarettes from her purse. She slaps it on her palm a few times before pulling off the cellophane.

“I forgot my lighter,” she says. “Help me out?”

Hal gives her his full attention for the first time. She’s lying about the lighter. She wanted an excuse to talk to him. Hal’s always been able to find company like this when he wants. Jealous friends have called it his superpower. Hal, who knows what an actual superpower looks like, thinks of it as an accident of personality. He’s good at reading people, is all.

AA says you’re not supposed to start new relationships during the first year of sobriety. And hooking up with a fellow alcoholic? That’s a double no-no. But Susie is pretty, and she seems nice, and Hal is feel­ing low tonight. His lawyer called earlier today to set up a meeting for tomorrow. Insisted they talk in person. That can only mean big news. Likely bad news. So Hal lets this conversation with Susie play out a little further.

“Want to see a magic trick?” he asks.

Susie spreads her hands in a by all means gesture. He closes his eyes and pushes past all the worry and anxiety to that deep place in his center that he never visits anymore. He makes an exception tonight because he wants to delight this sad, pretty woman. There’s nothing in the blue book that forbids making a pretty woman smile.

He strikes his mind against the spark of pain in his middle. Light flashes behind his eyelids and he opens them in time to watch Susie’s cigarette light itself without visible assistance.

This little show is the extent of what he can do these days. He doesn’t understand why he has this talent. It isn’t one he had as a kid, when he could do far more impressive things.

“Ta-daa,” he says.

Susie pulls the cigarette from her mouth and looks like she might drop it, or maybe throw it at him. She’s not charmed. She’s freaked out.

She jerks a thumb toward the parking lot, where no cars have arrived for several minutes. “My ride is here. I better go.”

“Sure thing,” he says.

“But congrats on your one year. And thanks for the reminder! One day at a time!”

He raises a hand in farewell as she speed-walks away from him. She drops her cigarette, its cherry winking orange on the pavement. He follows her far enough to stamp out the fire and pick up the butt. He frowns at it, and it bursts like a trick cigar in a cartoon. Tobacco and paper waft through the sticky air, down toward the lawn. Hal looks around, but everyone else seems busy with their own thoughts and preoccupations and conversations.

He decides his mind is as clear as it’s going to get tonight. He drives home, to his studio apartment, and tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to sleep.

He rises logy and miserable the next morning and considers call­ing in sick to work, but his meeting with his lawyer isn’t until the afternoon, and he needs a distraction until then. Also, he needs every penny for his stack of overdue bills and attorney fees.

He showers and goes to the auto finance company where he works. He answers emails and phone calls from customers hoping to resched­ule their car payments. Everyone he talks to seems to have prepared a speech, a justification for why they should be allowed to skip this month’s payment or at least be given an extra week to get the money together.

Customers think they have to convince Hal, but the truth is that every one of this company’s customers is allowed to rearrange their payment date as often as they’d like, and everyone is also allowed a cer­tain number of skipped payments before the repo men are unleashed. This latter number is based on an algorithm—the unholy union of payment history with the company and overall credit score. Hal’s job is mostly to put a human face in front of the algorithm, to create the illusion that the company cares about its customers.

There is one decision he gets to make every time he answers a phone call or email. He gets to decide how friendly he wants to be. For exam­ple, around 11 a.m., Hal gets a call from a man who wants his APR adjusted. Normally Hal would sympathize; he’s never been great with money himself, and has often bitten off more than he can financially chew. But this guy? This fucking guy.

“You need to lower my APR,” the man says. It’s the voice of some­one used to issuing orders and being obeyed. “It’s too high.”

Hal’s voice remains placid, pleasant. “That’s not a service we offer. I can help arrange your payment schedule—”

“Are you deaf? I don’t need to change my payment date. I need to change the amount you’re gouging me every month.”

Most people’s hackles would rise at this tone. Hal’s seen it happen with his coworkers. Hal, on the other hand, settles back into his chair and smiles. Call it another superpower, or accident of personality.

“Sir, I would remind you that you took out an auto loan with a sub­prime lending company,” he says.

“Excuse me?”

“You came to us because you needed to clean up your credit,” Hal says. “That’s an extra risk to us, and an extra risk comes with an extra cost.”

“Now listen,” the man says.

“We didn’t create this situation,” Hal says, upbeat and friendly. “We’re helping you tidy it up. You’re paying us for the favor. You agreed to all of this in writing, and it’s not our fault if you didn’t bother to read your contract. The APR will not change. But if you’d like to talk about changing your due date or would like to make a payment today, I’d be happy to help you.”

“Fuck you, you little prick.”

“I see here you’re already past due,” Hal says. “Would you like to make your payment?”

“Eat shit and die,” the man says before he hangs up.

Hal sighs, relaxed for the first time all day. He loves a fight, verbal or physical. He’s good at them. Can keep his cool while other people lose theirs.

But the high is short-lived. As the morning drags on and the sec­onds tick toward his meeting with his lawyer, he fumbles call after call, and eventually asks his supervisor if he can move to emails for the rest of the day.

For lunch, he goes to Taco Bell and orders two bean burritos. He sits in a booth meant for four, and while he eats, he stares into the middle distance, hoping the salt and fat will soothe his nerves. They do, for the few minutes it takes to eat them.

Hal clocks out at 2 p.m., and drives into Dallas. Hal’s lawyer, Rob­ert K. Tuttle, has his own building right off I-35. The frosted glass on the front doors bears a crest that reads “LIBERTY OR DEATH.” It’s the sort of thing a tacky person would mistake for classy.

The inside is every bit as ostentatious, with track lights and large paintings of Southwestern landscapes on the walls. It’s a ridiculous place, but the firm’s results are impressive. Tuttle’s website has a long list of DWI and intoxication manslaughter charges dismissed or refiled as lesser charges. It’s why Hal sold almost everything he owned to hire Tuttle.

The receptionist is polite and cheerful as she directs Hal to one of the plush leather chairs in the lobby. Hal tries to play a game on his phone as he waits, but he can’t concentrate. After a few minutes, the attorney appears in his office doorway, shaking hands with a middle-­aged woman who looks like she’s having a bad day. Her sunken eyes are haunted, rimmed by heavy bags. Tuttle waits until she’s out the front door before he shakes Hal’s hand.

“Hal,” Tuttle says. “How are you today?”

“You tell me.”

Tuttle leads Hal into his office and takes a seat behind a massive desk with the “Liberty or Death” crest carved into the front. Hal takes one of the small chairs opposite, feeling like a little kid called to the principal’s office.

Tuttle steeples his fingers. “You know I didn’t invite you here to talk about the weather.”

“I figured.”

“It’s not easy or fun to say this. The DA’s office made a plea offer and I think it’s the best we’re going to get.”

“Okay,” Hal says. His voice sounds far away to his own ears.

“Ten years, with a chance of parole after the first five years served.”

“Five to ten years,” Hal says.

“We don’t have to take it,” Tuttle says. “We can go to trial, but it’s a gamble. You might be acquitted, but you could also end up with a longer sentence. And a trial would cost you more, whether you won or lost.”

“I see,” Hal says, because he feels like he has to say something.

“Take a few days,” Tuttle says. “Think about it.”

He stands to let Hal know the meeting is over. Hal follows him out of the office. Tuttle pats him on the back but doesn’t try to shake his hand again, for which Hal is grateful.

Hal’s legs carry him to the edge of the sidewalk in front of the build­ing before they give out and he sits down hard on the pavement. Pain shoots up from his tailbone, and the numbness vanishes, replaced with a sharp hatred of everything about Robert K. Tuttle, that smarmy cartoon of a man. Fucker probably thinks ten years is a good deal. Another victory to add to the list on his website.

Hal spreads his knees and lowers his head. He focuses on his breath, counts from one to ten. He’s in the middle of the third round of count­ing when the earth rumbles. He looks up toward the highway, think­ing it must be a truck, but he sees nothing big enough to make the ground shake. Also, the tremble isn’t moving like an eighteen-wheeler. It seems to be everywhere.

He tries to stand up, to look around, but the ground beneath him softens, then pulls taut and bounces him like a kid on a trampoline. He trips and falls onto the sidewalk on his hands and knees. The burritos he had for lunch backflip in his stomach. Acid burns up his throat and he vomits all over the pavement. Bile splashes the back of his hands.

When his stomach stops heaving, he realizes that the earth has fallen quiet below him. He tries to stand again, bracing himself against the bumper of his car.

The tint of the world has changed. Everything has turned a burned, brownish tinge. The sky is a fiery red. But on the highway next to Tuttle’s office, cars hurtle down the road as normal. No one stops to gape or scream like extras in a disaster movie. Is no one else seeing this? Is it just Hal? Did the plea deal snap his sanity?

His phone vibrates in his pocket. He bends over and wipes his hands on the grass before taking it out. The notification is a Facebook event invitation:


From The Dissonance: A Novel by Shaun Hamill. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Shaun Hamill.

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