We're living in a golden age of apocalyptic books right now, with everybody from Margaret Atwood to Cormac McCarthy to Colson Whitehead telling apocalyptic tales. We've had a plague apocalypse, and an apocalypse where children's voices are toxic. But the insomnia plague in Kenneth Calhoun's Black Moon is still uniquely haunting.
Top image: Johnny Takes Pictures.
Some spoilers ahead...
In Black Moon, people just stop being able to sleep, and there's no real explanation. People speculate about a mutated form of Fatal Familial Insomnia, or some kind of change in amino acids, or a version of Mad Cow Disease. But really, nobody knows, and as in one of the early chapters we see someone's brain slowly unraveling from lack of sleep, as the theories about the causes of the insomnia get more and more bizarre and unreal, until it concludes with:
Maybe it was food becoming a prop for food, the rise of corn and its many guises maybe it was the fluoride in the water maybe the author of us all decided to see what would happen maybe it was a distant comet dusting us with its tail of poisoned ice the moon was having its revenge someone uttering a combination of syllables that should never be uttered maybe it was the kids who weren't given a chance maybe it was the fingerfucking of the priests the rise of autotune the piracy the orgy of infringement all the bad books and movies the shift to decentralization the emergence of collective intelligence the flattening of the world. Maybe it was the turtle on whose back we all live slowly shifting its feet the Sasquatch sending out vibes sharks swimming far upstream the game we inhabit had a glitch.Maybe the angel's horn had finally been blown.
Later in the book, a scientist proclaims it to be "an attack on the cathedral of the human mind, perhaps of alien origin."
Whatever the cause of the insomnia blight, it tears the world apart just as surely as any nuclear explosion or zombie outbreak. People quickly start to lose their minds and become almost like wild animals.
But the most terrifying thing about Calhoun's scenario, which feels horribly plausible, is that the handful of humans who can still sleep are hunted and murdered. When the insomniacs see someone sleeping, they fly into an uncontrollable rage and want to tear that person apart with their bare hands. Early on, before the Internet is gone, people find Youtube videos showing sleeping babies and post thousands of comments describing the gruesome ways they want to kill them. A Youtube video showing a man sleeping on a train gets comments like "HIS SLEEPERS THROAT IS TO BE CUTTED!!".
This turns the novel into something like a zombie story, as roughly half the protagonists we follow are able to sleep, but are constantly in danger of waking up to a rampaging mob. Finding a safe place to sleep, where you won't be murdered, becomes a huge nightmare. And yet, this is also a zombie story where we get inside the heads of some of the zombies, since two of the four major viewpoint characters are insomniacs.
The great strength of this novel is that it's utterly terrifying and poetically beautiful at the same time, and the two things feed on each other. Calhoun captures the way that people's syntax tends to degrade and become more tormented when they haven't slept in a long time, resulting in dialogue that feels like something out of William Carlos Williams or something. People stumble over sentences and spell out things that don't need to be spelled out, saying things like, "Hand me that axe with your own hand." The unraveling mental state of the insomniacs is fascinating and kind of beautiful, but also completely horrifying — and it's hard to say which is scarier, being one of the insomniacs or being hunted by them.
As the book goes on, even the people who are theoretically able to sleep are living in a kind of nightmarish dream world, because nothing makes sense around them. As one character says towards the end of the book, the final effect is almost of turning people inside out — our dream worlds, no longer accessible through sleep, burst out into the real world and people start seeing hallucinations straight out of their dreams wherever they look.
Without the ability to sleep, and thus process things in our unconscious minds, the whole fabric of reality breaks down — and in fact, people become worse than animals, because we simply can't navigate. People wander into stranger's houses, unable to figure out that they're not at home, and then tear the houses apart looking for something familiar. There's one horrible scene where a couple can't find their baby and they keep hallucinating that they see it, but it's just a cat or nothing at all. Worse than any kind of nanotech apocalypse, the lack of sleep deconstructs the real world and turns it into dross.
And the deeper into the waking dreamstate you get, the more you realize that our identities are built on dreams and our memories are reconstructed by them. As one character says in a flashback to life before the insomnia struck, "Everything gets mixed together as you go: The past and present, dreams and memories."
A lot of authors, with such a weird premise, would play it as straight as possible — but to Calhoun's credit, he pushes the weirdness as far as he can, in a way that feels horribly plausible. The surrealism gets kind of overwhelming — one character, suffering from feelings of sexual inadequacy, takes an overdose of Viagra and winds up with insomniac priapism, wandering around with a pair of waders and a truck full of sheep. Another character, who's attacked for her ability to sleep, wears a mascot's giant owl mask for a month. Yes, this book is actually kind of batshit insane on top of being scary and generally dreamlike. The whole thing really does feel like kind of a lucid dream, and yet you'll emerge from its pages terrified that you won't be able to sleep.
But the other component of this novel that sticks with you after you're done reading isn't just the raw terror and the sense that our humanity is more fragile than we like to admit — it's also a terrible sadness. Another thread that runs through this novel is one of unsustainable relationships, which were already doomed before the plague struck but which threaten to drag people down. One man searches for his missing wife, in her old art films and in the places she haunted, while a woman who's been "cured" of insomnia reconnects with her bad-for-her ex-boyfriend. Families are destroyed, or worse. As the owl-mask woman says, "Everyone is an orphan now."
Black Moon shows how the inability to dream destroys us. But it also shows why we keep consuming novels like this: Because even in the most terrifying nightmares lies the core of our most cherished dreams.