Stephen King brings his usual chilly touch to INSOMNIA, the story of a small-town gripped by a creeping evil … This is not a horror story in the classic mold; it is a supernatural adventure romp on the fringes of the imagination, popular fiction at its best.
Insomnia is a difficult novel to assess. While its heft shouldn’t put off Stephen King devotees, it is not as accessible to casual readers as, say, It orThe Stand, even at hundreds of pages beyond Insomnia‘s length. Its opening pages move slowly, creating a deliberate, off-kilter feel unlike any of King’s other novels. While not dull, the opening sequences (with one startling and effective action sequence near the beginning of the novel) seem to meander without direction.
Ralph Roberts isn’t your run of the mill hero – old and a bit grizzled he finds he sleeps less and less each night. Ralph and his friend Lois Chasse begin to see what Ralph thinks of as “auras,” emissions of brilliant light enclosing every person and thing. A slender stem of this light – a “lifeline” – rises from the heads of people and animals. During one night of premature waking, Ralph glimpses out his window to see two small, bald men who look like doctors enter one of his neighbor’s houses with a giant pair of scissors. The next day, his neighbor is dead of heart failure.
His neighbour a usually mild mannered professional starts raving about dead babies and Centurions, his worry deepens when an even older chap tells not to mess into ‘long time’ business.
Here, Insomnia picks up its pace. If the opening of the novel is a rumination on age and death, the book now becomes an exploration of purpose. The Little Bald Doctors are supernatural creatures Ralph and Lois call Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, after the names of the three Fates.
The little doctors he has seen purport themselves with dignity and pride, they seem to be there to end peoples lives and this is alarming at first, what is even more alarming is when another little bald doctor, the complete opposite of the first two starts showing up and he is a mean one.
An imminent pro-choice rally, headed by abortion rights activist Susan Day, has divided the town by political and ethical lines, much as Castle Rock was divided by the upcoming church bingo event in Needful Things. Here, King approaches the pro-choice/pro-life issue judiciously, never letting his authorial voice take a side. Much of Insomnia tackles contemporary topics – feminism, spousal abuse, and homophobia among them (this latter most interesting, specifically addressing the murder of Adrian Mellon in It) – without allowing the novel to become mired in them, broaching them only in service to the plot. One interesting sequence involves Ralph attempting to save a group of feminists who resist him because he is a man; later, they are decimated by a pro-life extremist they trusted because she is a woman. Unlike in Gerald’s Game or The Tommyknockers, the issues are not black and white, and King never seems to be soapboxing; Insomnia is served well by showing, not telling.
In Derry a mass murder is about to take place – one life amoungst thousands that will be lost is to be saved at all costs – or else the Crimson King gets his foot in the door.
Yes – the Crimson King, Dark Tower? Yes.
Ralph gets deprived of sleep so the hidden world becomes visible to him in order for him to tackle the unseen elements working around Derry. He is one tired old man with a helluva job on his plate – magic, murder and chaos.
The final battle recalls that of It: Ralph battles with the great supernatural threat The Kingfisher (aka The Crimson King, who will become increasingly important in the ongoing Dark Tower series) that actually makes a reference to the creature It and closely mimics Its powers. Other creatures bearing similar abilities – such as Ardelia Lortz from “The Library Policeman” and Dandelo the psychic vampire from The Dark Tower – suggest that there is a larger race of such beings, and that Ben Hanscom may not have killed all of Its children. Ralph must also contend with the Crimson King’s human counterparts just as the Losers Club was forced to fight Henry Bowers and his friends; whereas supernatural entities are bound by the rules and strictures of magic, human beings are not, making them potentially more dangerous. In a final echo of It, Ralph is assisted by The Green Man, a mythic force for good, reminding readers of The Turtle who explained the cosmic nature of It to Bill Denbrough.
Like some of King’s other complex novels (The Talisman and Needful Things among them), Insomnia is a book that rewards a re-read. It is never a difficult read; unlike books such as Black House or Wolves of the Calla, it does not require dogged persistence and concentration in its opening chapters before yielding its more accessible pleasures. As with his following novel, Rose Madder, King draws from ancient mythology for his story, but as he had repurposed and contemporized the classic Cinderella story for Carrie, Bram Stoker’s Dracula for ‘Salem’s Lot, and Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde for The Dark Half, here he makes the references fresh and approachable; the reader never gets bogged down by allusions to the source texts. King’s main characters are written well, and the details of their lives and their predicaments are involving. While we are drawn into the familiar world of Derry, Maine and the compelling stories of the people in it, the initial concern is that the book isn’t really going anywhere. A second read of the novel allows for a surer conviction of its purpose, making Insomnia an even more enjoyable experience.