By Isabela Torezan
I love Lovecraftian horror stories about shapeless creatures and horrid monsters. But I know, and Liam Bell knows too, what really haunts us is real life. While this has been explored by psychological thrillers more times than we can count, The Sleepless brings something new to the technique.
I have to admit that, at first, I did not believe the warning on the cover of The Sleepless: “These are characters which will haunt you”. I have been a long-time fan of horror stories and I listen to the news every day. Few things really scare me.
I am happy to announce, though, that I was wrong. After having read the book in five days and having had three nightmares, I can recommend it with confidence to anyone looking for a healthy dose of fear.
I am not sure, though, if the characters alone are what caused my nightmares. Yes, I definitely would not like to meet the merciless, mentally unstable cult leader Swami Ravi, or even his younger, but no less threatening, disciple Joan. However, I think it is the plot itself, the possibility of an obsession stronger than the human instinct of survival, which really scared me.
The Sleepless are united by the belief that the need for sleep is a social construct. Grafton, the main character, “lost” his wife Liz to this strange cult in which progressive sleep deprivation is the path to a kind of nirvana, a state of complete wakefulness.
When he learns that there is a new branch of the cult starting a commune near Glasgow, where he lives, he does what a thriller story character is expected to do: goes directly and willingly to meet danger.
Liz is not there, and Grafton finds himself trapped by the strict rules of the sleepless commune and the lies he told to cover his real identity as a journalist trying to write a story (and, of course, find something about his ex-wife).
At this point one might wonder how a bunch of people who refuse to sleep can be threatening. Sleep deprivation affects me to the point of changing my usually kind and passive personality, but I would not say it is among my top ten monsters.
The threat is in the narrative. Not the one we are directly presented with, which is Bell’s prose (very precise and professional, by the way), but the one that sustains the cult’s ideas, the reason why those people become obsessed, submit themselves to torture and fight against a significant part of their human nature: the need for rest.
This is scary: the way Swami Ravi, Liz and then Joan justify their absurd decision to stay awake, with facts and not with something that could be refuted. We are indeed living close to some kind of apocalypse, the climate emergency threatens our survival, we have just realised we are subject to pandemics at any given time. Sleeping while all this happens is a mistake, say the Sleepless. We should always be awake, alert, to sleep is to succumb to control.
The fact that we can understand why those people become blind, stubborn followers that do not question the authority of a self-appointed leader is scary. They are not insane, they are just people in search of answers. As we all are.
Of course, this is still a very well-written and perfectly constructed thriller fiction. But you may find yourself wondering, could it be real? And if I open the newspaper tomorrow and find an article just like the one Grafton wanted to write?
Bell’s text strikes the perfect balance, between logic and irrationality, making the book convincingly frightening and originally absurd at the same time. The characters that haunt us are not of a regular complexity, the kind that it takes just a little bit of talent and perhaps a creative writing course to learn to create without difficulty.
Instead, they are people that behave like real humans most of the time, only to suddenly do something that makes you question: would I or anyone ever react like this? And it is a genuine uncertainty, not disbelief. I really do not know if someone is capable of pushing their humanity to those limits. Perhaps they are, perhaps not.
What I felt while reading those passages was very similar to what I usually feel at that precise moment between being asleep and awake. It is a moment when I am never sure if I am still dreaming or have already woken up, because I do something that I would naturally do after waking up, like checking the time on my watch on the bedside table, or switching the lights on, or going to the bathroom.
And then I actually wake up and realise I had just dreamed of doing those things. Or, I am really awake but it takes me several minutes to convince myself it is not a dream. It is always all very nebulous.
There must be a stage of sleep deprivation when a person starts feeling like this permanently. I have never been deprived of sleep for so many hours like the characters in The Sleepless, but I am guessing that this is a likely side effect.
Intentionally or not, Bell may be making us experience some of what his characters go through, and I think this is one of the best ways to engage readers. No wonder why I was sometimes unable to put the book down, even if it was many hours past my bedtime (a very strict self-imposed rule, as I belong to a cult of sleep worshippers).
When I finished, then, I was obviously left with that feeling, known to many compulsive readers, that now life has no meaning because there are no more pages to read. It always lasts just a few hours, but it is strong. The Sleepless‘ ending, by the way, is a good subject to the ending of this review, if I can be pardoned for the lack of creativity.
I cannot describe it, of course, since this would be spoiling a very good reading, but I can leave my humble request for a sequel. The way it ended not only allows for it but makes us ask for more, we need to be further haunted by these characters.
Whether you are someone who falls asleep seconds after your head touches the pillow, or a poor soul who already survived years of chronic insomnia, one thing is certain if you make the (wise) decision of reading The Sleepless: you will never think of sleep the same way again.
About our contributor
Isabela Torezan is a Brazilian writer and translator who sincerely believes that literature is the meaning of life. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and, soon, a master’s degree in Literary Translation. She writes short stories, essays and book reviews regularly on her blog (in Portuguese). She has also written a book of short stories, O Bibliófago, which was published in 2018, and participated in some short story collections. Isabela lives in Brazil but travels the world through books and you can find her on Instagram @isa_torezan, always ready to talk about literature.