In Stephen King‘s The Stand, the book I was most reminded of while reading Black Moon, the plague that cripples the planet is archetypal in that it is a catalyst for the chaos and lawlessness that lurks beneath the veneer of civilization. King’s plague suggests what might occur when the social contract that holds human societies together can no longer be upheld and enforced. There are no zombies in The Stand, and there is no need for them; the living are frightening enough, much more terrifying than the supernatural forces at play in the book.
Kenneth Calhoun’s Black Moon charts similar territory, but jettisons the supernatural altogether and explores instead the psychological causes and effects of a plague of insomnia that devastates humanity: “What had happened was this… the world had been turned inside out. That was the only way to describe it. That was the result of a world without sleep. All outside things were now inside. Everything else that we kept in our heads, in our hearts, flooded out into the open air”.
Those who are afflicted with the plague suffer the loss of their identities as their personas collapse into a detritus of sensation, memory and fantasy. The victims try to maintain their dignity and uphold cultural norms, but “the insomnia epidemic had made people hungry for sleep and, in their starved state, capable of anything.” The few who can sleep become fodder for sleep-deprived lynch mobs who, not unlike zombies, inexorably pursue them in a jealous rage.
At first glance, Black Moon might appear to be just another variation of the zombie theme, which it is. Yet, it is also different: Calhoun’s novel is written for adult readers.
Unfortunately, when used to describe media content, the word “adult” becomes a euphemism for explicit sex or violence. To be sure, Calhoun’s novel is graphic, but it is also “adult” in a more important sense; namely, in the sense that it is more pensive than titillating, more literary than prosaic. For example, as the crisis worsens, the authorities remain unable to determine the cause of the malady, and the rumors that spread read like a catalogue of American anxiety and subconscious guilt:
All those warriors ... afraid to dream, heads crowded with scorpions. Maybe that’s where it started and they brought it back from the desert, some kind of contagious psychic wound, guilt based—the empathy system hyperactivated by the policy of preemptive war, the outsourcing of torture.
Then again, “maybe it was the toxic dust from fallen towers, the ash creeping into our lungs. Maybe it was some ancient spore released by the melting ice… the hole in the ozone, the collapse of the upper atmosphere. Maybe it was the betrayal by the banks.”
In an unlikely twist, a few survivors do manage to achieve sleep with the aid of surgical implants, but they can no longer dream. “You don’t know what it’s like,” a character tells Biggs, one of the few who is naturally immune to the disease and can dream. “When your head doesn’t work right, when it stops telling you stories. It’s like there’s just a hole there. You throw stuff in it and nothing comes back.”
Those saved by the implants do not exactly lack imagination, but they do suffer from a keen sense of loss, one that threatens to stunt human potential. “Everything around us, the remnants of our world, was birthed in a dream, brought forth and hardened under the sun: the roads, buildings, the institutions of thought and knowledge, the urgings of the heart, the fuel of desire. Sleep is the bridge over which these fantastic constructions have been passed, piece by piece, particle by particle”.
Might the implants that both save and cripple the survivors be a metaphor for the role contemporary technology plays in our lives? Perhaps. Yet, Calhoun’s plot is driven by its well-developed characters, not highbrow ideas, and this is what makes the book so engaging. A professor at Lasell College, Calhoun may be an academic, but his book is not. There are no facile gestures to Hamlet, no cheeky allusions to Jung or Freud, just people struggling to survive in a world devoid of sleep and the consolation of dreams.
Calhoun’s characters suffer, and not all of them survive. To protect herself physically, young Lila wears a mask so that the insomniacs cannot see her sleepy eyes; of course, the mask is also an emotional buffer. She refuses to take it off, just as she refuses to go back home to check on her parents. Biggs, on the other hand, goes from one home to another, desperate to find his wife, while Jordan and Chase think they will be able to overcome failures at college or their minimum-wage jobs by dealing in stolen sleeping pills. As to be expected, things will not work out as planned.
The stream-of-consciousness technique that Calhoun at times adopts allows us to view the world through the eyes of both the healthy and the sick, and precludes simplistic judgments about the zombie-like somnambulists. Indeed, readers may, uncomfortably, catch a glimpse of themselves in the mutterings and confusions of the plague-stricken.
While calling to mind Stephen King, in terms of style and structure Calhoun is actually closer to some of King’s influences from the heyday of science fiction, writers such as Richard Matheson and John Wyndham. Indeed, Black Moon would sit nicely on a shelf next to I Am Legend and Day of the Triffids. This is speculative fiction at its best: suspenseful, intelligent, moving, and sure to keep you awake.