Shortly after Christmas 1994, I started reading what would eventually become one of my favourite novels. I have read it four times since and have just started a fifth.
I have recommended this book to a number of people and every single one of them have felt it is the author's best work (although none were that well-versed in his stuff) and a book they were glad they read.
I have seen this book described as 'science fiction' and as 'horror', 'fantasy' could also be attached to it and I'm sure it falls into all of them categories, yet I don't think of it as any of them. The fact it is written by Stephen King also doesn't automatically mean it should be pigeon-holed - some of his best work hasn't got a ghoul, monster or malevolent spirit anywhere near them. In many ways it could be considered one of the strangest of King's oeuvre and yet also the most revelatory in his exploitation of his own shared universe.
Recently, I found out that this book is considered the 3rd worst Stephen King book, in a poll, involving fans. The fact that Pet Semetary was in the top 10, perfectly explains to me the pointlessness of these kinds of polls and the opinions of supposed die-hard fans. That said, the same die-hard fans are getting excited about a Dark Tower series of films, despite the fact the series ended up being an enormous waste of useful words and the films of Stephen King are not likely to feature that heavily in an award-winning retrospective, with only one, maybe three, notable quality exceptions.
Insomnia has never been made into a film. Is called 'boring' by King fans and it doesn't have much of a happy ending. It hasn't been made into a film because it's possibly the most complicated single story of any King novel. Boring is a subjective concept, but I can understand how there's far more discussion and less action than your average blockbuster, but perhaps these people lose sight of the fact that the main character Ralph Roberts starts the book in his 70s or his beau Lois Chasse is also a septuagenarian. Or perhaps these people, who find it boring, have never known what it's like to actually get to know someone; because that is the first thing about this book that makes it endearingly wonderful; it takes its time getting to know the main characters and because of that you become emotionally interested in their adventure long before their adventure starts getting weird.
As for the not having a happy ending, it reminds me of the huge box office failure of the adaptation of a King written short story The Mist, which probably would have been one of the US's top sales hits had it not been for the utterly bleak ending. US audiences hated it, yet it received amazing reviews all over the world. In the short story of The Mist it concludes with the protagonist contemplating the worst; in the film he does the worst, it has no redeeming qualities. The difference between it and Insomnia is the latter does have a happy ending; it just doesn't have the happy ending that the reader wants.
Essentially, it is the tale of two lonely old people, both have lost their long-term partners and are both winding down their last days on earth. The focus of the story initially falls on Ralph who, after the death of his wife, begins to suffer insomnia and then exhausts everything in trying to cure it. It becomes as much of an obsession as his wife's terminal illness had become and before long what appears to be his sleep deprivation begins manifesting in peculiar ways - Ralph starts to see 'auras' or an arrays of strange 'lights' emanating from tops of peoples heads. Some are healthy, some are anything but, and some are unlike anything else. Not only is Ralph hallucinating strange things, he also appears to be getting younger and fitter again - although he initially dismisses it as part of the sleep psychosis he must be suffering from.
If waking up every night at 3am, regardless of what time he goes to bed, is bad enough, he begins to see three oddly rotund figures - without auras - that Ralph nicknames the 'Three Bald Doctors' and eventually there is an encounter between them all, but not before Ralph discovers that Lois is also having trouble sleeping and also sees strange things. Lois is also looking 'well fit'.
Eventually they discover that there is something wrong with the order of things and it might be to do with Ralph's young neighbour Ed, who has a wife and young daughter that the old man and his late wife had taken a shine to, as they had no kids of their own. Wrapped up in his own troubles, Ralph has paid little attention to Ed's young wife; not noticed the bruises or the unhappy child.
Now, there is no real way to convey the general weirdness of the book without having to go into minutiae. To King fans much of the weirdness is easily explained - the book is set in the fictitious Derry, home to It and setting for a number of King's most popular books. There are odd characters on the periphery of the book who are strange anomalies, one or two pop up in other books - something that often happens in King's wild and wacky shared universe. There are also two cracking elements that prove to me how clever Stephen King is as a writer - although whatever place Insomnia was going to inhabit in the author's magnum opus The Dark Tower, may well have been changed due to the hit and run accident the writer was involved in during the late 1990s.
The book's initial antagonist is one of the doctors' who has gone rogue and represents the chaos in the grand scheme of things - he is the 'random', the reason for the unexplained, the unprovoked or the unexpected death. But this is normal - the two orderly bald doctors are quick to explain this to Ralph and Lois when they become embroiled in the madness, the problem is it has become clear that the bald doctor of the random is indiscriminately cutting peoples life forces under the direction of some other antagonist.
The true villain - and the first element of genius - is The Crimson King: the named-but-not-seen major villain in the (then) unfinished Dark Tower saga. Many of his Constant Readers, myself included, believed that Insomnia was a dry run; an attempt to tell the Dark Tower's story in a contemporary setting. This was either because King had grown bored with it at that point, or because he didn't know if he would finish it so he wanted to do an allegorical version - one that scholars could paw over in the future trying to find clues. Whatever the reason behind King's use of the Dark Tower antagonist, the references to and brief appearance of Roland of Gilead and prophesying the future, they appeared in a book that apparently had nothing to do with The Dark Tower's own labyrinthine continuity.
The second and most brilliant, yet most tragic is Patrick Danville - a boy whose appearance in the book is ridiculously marginal, but it actually the entire reason the book takes place...
Insomnia isn't about the metaphysical battle on different planes of existence between two OAPs and their helpers from a much higher level of existence in battle against a mythical villain and a psychotic former colleague. It's really about obsession and how to turn people into things they aren't. The back story in Insomnia, one that beats heavily throughout the book, is the forthcoming arrival of women's rights activist and pro-abortion campaigner Susan Day. While it never is the focus, it's always there in the background like a tooth beginning to decay. Yet even this thinly-veiled Pro-Life/Pro-Choice debate isn't the story. The Crimson King has recruited Ralph's neighbour Ed Deepneau to sabotage the big rally being organised in the Day's honour, but why? What could a prominent Pro-Choice campaigner possibly have to do with a powerful villain of an alternate King universe?
Ed is taking flying lessons because he is going to fly a plane loaded with explosives into the football stadium that Susan Day is going to speak at and Ralph and Lois have to stoop him from doing it - the rest of what I've talked about is just a red herring... except for Patrick Danville.
Ed might think he's just killing a woman who believes that babies should be illegally harvested, but his real target is Patrick, because Patrick will save the life of someone in the future who will go on to change the world and if the Crimson King can prevent that from happening...
I'd say 'ironically' but frankly there was nothing ironic about the way King (Stephen, not the Crimson one) almost shoehorned Danville into his Dark Tower finale to try and close an opened circle (that he seemed to have conveniently ignored).
It was like this brilliant idea from the future was saved for us to read about it further one day but it ended up being a plot device on a bad Chuckle Brothers sitcom instead... This book had been set up as a cornerstone - a key element - in the battle between The Crimson King and Roland and his Ka-tet only to be forgotten about, then, as said, shoehorned (no other way of describing it) almost like an afterthought.
Anyhow, to save the day Ralph makes a deal with the evil bald doctor and it's from this point on where you know, even without the knowledge of having read it before, that there's going to be tragedy on the horizon and the kind you have no control over.
Insomnia is bonkers. It has oddly benign characters, who seem to exist outside of the normal world; different levels of existence, where time moves much faster; it teases us with the elixir of youth and then explains that all you have to do is not sleep; and it has lovely and wonderful characters that should easily remind you of your own grandparents or of someone's, at least. The story is considerably more complex and entwined than you think and, it has this jaw dropper of a moment when, as stated, it was all to save the life of someone who would save the life of someone else - so the great wheel of Ka needs to revolve.
And then there's the tears. The first time I read the book I howled at the end. The second time, armed with the knowledge of how it ends, I howled even earlier. The same with the third time and the fourth, but by this time you feel the hitching at the point where Ralph makes the deal with Atropos and yet you also know that Ralph is being everything he has already proved; he is being the best damned hero ever created by Stephen King and the best damned hero has to die being a hero otherwise it would all have been for nowt. [When Ralph makes a cameo appearance in Bag of Bones a few years later I think I blubbed again]
Insomnia is a dense, at times overly complicated, story about obsession, possession and desire. It has wonderfully rounded characters with believable lives and wholly individual voices. There are elements in this book that King has, sadly, never re-examined - such as Dorrance, one of Ralph's more 'knowledgeable' acquaintances and as I said, there are elements of the story that we do revisit in the future, but I can't help feeling not in the way most of us expected (a criticism levelled at the bastard offspring of The Dark Tower far too often), especially the reduction of Patrick Danville to tortured patsy to allow King to interpret an ending for his bloated folly (you can tell it pissed me off).
For me, this book isn't a tale about lack of sleep, it isn't even the encapsulation of the entire Dark Tower series before the author had his epiphany and screwed it all up, it's about the last of the selfless society; it's about friendship, love, honour, relationships and how they ebb and flow and it's about sacrifices. It is heartbreaking: especially when Lois pleads with Ralph in the final chapter - every time you read it you want her to convince him, because you want Ralph to die of the old age he's had reversed, not at the hands of the crazy bald doctor who had it all planned out. But, you see, he wouldn't have become the greatest character King has ever written if he'd just lived happily-ever after.
Ordinarily I'd just put it down to my own personal desire to not conform to the norm for liking this novel so much, but every person who has read it has felt the same way about Mr Roberts and about the story. I know someone who didn't really understand what it was all about but was hooked on the adventures of these two septuagenarian X Filers and the real-ness of them.
If you ever see it in a second hand book store, or you fancy paying full price, you won't be disappointed and it might also make you wonder just how 'off key' some of King's stuff is. One reiterated word of warning; don't allow the blatant cross-over tempt you into the world of The Dark Tower, because that way leads to anger, disappointment and serious levels of disbelief.