Insomnia by Stephen King

stephen-king-insomnia-coverI like Stephen King quite a lot and read most of his novels, but his tendency to overwrite sometimes annoys the hell out of me. This book stands at over 700 pages, and I wondered if this was going to be yet another novel of his which would have been so much better if it didn’t noodle around describing pointless details and dragging out the scenes. Insomnia takes its sweet time to set things up and yes some scenes and dialogues do ramble on. But whether it’s because I was in a right mindset or simply enjoyed the setting and the characters, I didn’t mind the slow pace and ended up really liking the book.

The book begins with Ralph, a 70-something man living in the small city of Derry in Maine (where else?), losing his beloved wife to cancer. Right before her death he witnesses a bizarre incident involving his neighbour and friend, Ed Deepneau, who seems to have changed from a pleasant mild-mannered guy into a violent raving lunatic. Shortly after his wife’s death, Ralph begins to suffer from insomnia, waking up earlier and earlier as the days go, until he gets by on a couple of hours of sleep. As if this wasn’t bad enough, he also starts to see bizarre things that he initially dismisses as hallucinations of his sleep-deprived brain: auras around people which reflect their personalities and health, and strange beings that are clearly not of this world. Meanwhile, all is not well in Ralph’s home town, as tensions rise over the coming visit by Susan Day, a pro-choice advocate who is due to give a speech in Derry. Protests by a pro-life group, headed by Ed Deepneau, are a predictable response, but it soon becomes clear that Ed is planning something much, much worse.

As I’ve mentioned before, the book takes ages with its setup, but at around half-way point the plot really takes off, in a rather unexpected fashion, and doesn’t stop rolling from then on. Insomnia felt like it was full of references to King’s other books that I haven’t read, but I didn’t feel that not getting the references detracted from the experience or confused things. I really liked the world of auras he creates here, the nods to Greek mythology, and the explanation for the hidden forces that govern life. Also, at his best King’s ability to get inside his characters’ heads is absolutely superb, and the characters here were very well done, from Ralph down to the stray dog who walks the streets in search of scraps. There were also some good observations on old age and life in general, I particularly liked this quote:

It was life, often unsatisfying, frequently cruel, usually boring, sometimes beautiful, once in a while exhilarating.

Without spoiling anything, the bittersweet ending was one of the most moving endings I’ve seen in a King novel; I haven’t cried over a book in ages but damn if it didn’t make my nose tickle a bit.

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