Horror Book Review: Insomnia by Stephen King

Insomnia is a 1994 horror/fantasy novel by American writer Stephen King. Like many King novels, its setting is the fictional town of Derry, Maine, but it also includes strong connections to the series The Dark Tower.

Insomnia was a popular book with critics, and was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award in 1994 though lost out to Nancy Holder’s Dead in the Water. Despite it’s popularity, King himself has been critical of Insomnia. In his memoir, On Writing, King states that Insomnia and Rose Madder are “stiff, trying-too-hard novels.” Perhaps, a little, but it has always been a favourite of mine though I must admit that may be due in part to it’s heavy Dark Tower connection.

Insomnia takes place in Stephen King’s multiverse in the fictional town of Derry, Maine. Ralph Roberts is our main ma. A retiree who runs into his good-natured acquaintance Ed Deepneau at the local airfield. Ed is out of sorts. He is behaving aggressively and swearing obscenely at a driver he accuses of involvement in transporting fetal tissue from abortions. We move forward in time a few months to where Ralph is now a widower. He has a run in with Ed’s wife Helen who has been badly beaten by her husband after she signed a pro-choice related petition. Time progresses quite quickly for a while as the story gets set. In the months after these events, Helen leaves Ed and hides at a women’s shelter while Ralph begins to suffer from insomnia. He wakes earlier each night until he is barely able to manage an hour of nightly sleep.

Insomnia by Stephen King

As his insomnia worsens, Ralph begins to see things that are invisible to others. At first he puts this down to lack of sleep. Maybe hallucinations. Just in the form of colourful manifestations of life-force surrounding people. We come to know these as auras. He also starts seeing small, white-coated beings he calls “little bald doctors,” based on their appearance. As time goes on, Ralph understands these are not hallucinations and comes to believe he is seeing things on a different level of reality. He realises that Ed Deepneau had probably also been seeing these things. Lois Chasse, a friend, teams up with Ralph after admitting she too has recently begun seeing auras which she appears to be able to loosely interpret.

Ralph and Lois encounter three little doctors in total. They seem to exist to cut auras away from people, essentially moving them on from this existence to the next. Two of these doctors act in a dignified way, only freeing people from this life when it is their time. The other, known as Atropos, appears to be more crazed. They learn that life as they know it is governed by “The Purpose” and “The Random,” forces that work together as opposites. They also learn that occasionally a person can exist who is not assigned to either force and is therefore dangerous as they can alter existence. Ed Deepneau is one of the very rare beings. Ralph and Lois are told of an entity known as the “Crimson King”. An evil being that has used Atropos to manipulate Ed Deepneau, in an effort to negatively influence existence.

In an effort to restore balance, the other two sane doctors, who are agents of Purpose, have manipulated Ralph and Lois. They have induced the Insomnia to allow them to reach this new level of existence and stop Atropos and The Crimson King.

Ralph and Lois are shown the local civic centre. A pro choice speaker called Susan Day, who is disliked by the town, is due to speak there. The whole building is seen to be surrounded by a black aura identifying incoming disaster. Ralph and Lois realise this is Ed’s target. They assume it is Susan or the consequence of her speech that The Crimson King is looking to disrupt. Ed’s feelings about abortion have been played upon by the Crimson King to the point that Ed has become fanatical and intends to rain down destruction on the whole centre. Ralph and Lois intend to stop him, despite feeling hurt at their own manipulation.

Insomnia by Stephen King

Allies of Ed attack and set fire to the shelter which is also where Ed’s estranged wife, Helen, is staying. Ralph and Lois attempt to save the residents of the centre and then head into battle with Atropos. At his defeat though, Atropos gets one last bit of revenge on Ralph by showing him a vision. A near future car accident that sees Helen’s young daughter lose her life at the hands of Atropos. In a desperate attempt to save the girl, Natalie’s life, Ralph refuses to help stop Ed any further unless the good doctors can allow Natalie to live, offering his life in her place. As Ralph flies into battle with Ed, we learn that the actual target of the Crimson King isn’t Susan Day. It is instead a young boy called Patrick Danville.

Danville is a key element in The Dark Tower playing a pivotal part in preventing the Crimson King’s quest to topple the tower. The battle rages on. It is hard fought but we eventually get to see poor Ralph enjoy his life for as bit, with Lois. All until the fateful day arrives when we wakes up and sees auras again. He knows it is time to fulfil the agreement made. He heads into town ready, pushes Natalie out of the way of an incoming car, and gets struck instead.

The world moves on but at least for now, in the right direction. The Danville boy is safe, his time will come and somewhere, on another level, a man rolls over on the hard ground where he sleeps, wondering what this next cycle will mean for the universe’ last Gunslinger.

I love this book. I adored it from the first reading and still do many years down the line. Ralph is a great character in that he feels so familiar. Everyone knows a Ralph, a bit of a loner, retiree who is more than a little cynical at the world and the hand he drew. He is pleasing to read about and easy to care about. There are passages of the story that feel over stretched and even I, with a deep love of back story, felt at times that I was reading nothing but back story for large portions of the book.

Insomnia by Stephen King

n that, I can see why King maybe felt it was a little forced. But, what matters with a story for me is how engrossed I become in it. How much I care for the outcome of the main characters. In that, Insomnia absolutely smashes it out of the park.

The characters are great, good and bad. You sympathise with Ed, feel terrible for Helen, hope for Lois and fight for Ralph. Atropos is immensely unlikeable, as he is meant to be, Even the other two, despite technically being on the right side of things come across pompous and in need of a slap. Again, like they were meant to be. The thing that turns this from a good story to a great one though is the Dark Tower connections. I am an obsessive fan of The Dark Tower and have read nearly all of King’s books for two reasons. One, because I like him as an author and want to read them. Obviously. Two, because I desperately seek out Dark Tower connections in his books. I often find them, even if they aren’t meant to be there but in Insomnia, they are loud and clear and I loved it.

Patrick Danville’s importance is not lost on me. The Crimson King’s appearance is exciting. Talk of other world’s and existences on different levels of a tower gives me goose bumps. When we get the narrative around a gunslinger turning on his bed roll in another land? Well I am just about ready to punch the air and run around like an excited 5 year old.

In that, I guess I can see why Insomnia didn’t become quite as popular as other King stories around the same time. If you aren’t very familiar with The Dark Tower, it may be that a lot of these moments went over your head. If you were familiar though, well, what a treat!

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Insomnia by Stephen King
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