A gothic horror story set in an old psychiatric hospital on the windswept coast of England. Psychological experimentation circa mid-1950’s. A medical mystery that stumps one of the great psychiatrists of the day, as well as his young protégé. If any of this lights up the literary centers of your brain, you will want to read The Sleep Room by Edgar nominee F.R. Tallis.
The story opens with promising young psychiatrist, Dr. James Richardson, accepting a position with one of the prominent psychiatric physicians of the day, Dr. Hugh Maitland. Richardson agrees to leave London and set up residence at Wyldehope Hall in Suffolk in order to manage Maitland’s “sleep room,” a new but controversial therapy in which extremely disturbed patients are kept asleep for months with hopes of curing—or at least mitigating—their mental illness.
Richardson quickly settles into his new surroundings, and as he familiarizes himself with the six female patients in the sleep room, he becomes increasingly interested in their medical histories and past lives. He soon discovers, however, that Maitland is not willing to share this information, a practice that is quite irregular in the patient care setting. Moreover, the medical mystery deepens as all six women begin dreaming at the same time and become difficult to arouse despite decreasing the dosages of the sedative-hypnotic medications.
The unusual events in the sleep room escalate, as do the strange occurrences taking place in other areas of the hospital. As one would expect from an isolated, Victorian-era-mansion-turned-psych-hospital, there are many bumps in the night, but these soon progress to malevolent forces that torment Dr. Richardson, a nurse-in-training, and one of the male patients on the general ward. And, of course, Maitland is eventually brought into the fray. In the end, all of the plotlines are nicely woven together, but are then promptly unwoven by a major plot twist.
If you are a writer, you would do well to read and analyze this story. Tallis employs the best elements of literary fiction (heightened attention to language, powerful themes, complex characters, unique voice) without sacrificing those characteristics that genre readers enjoy (interesting plot developments, rising action, increasing tension).
If you are a reader who likes gothic horror, you will enjoy this book, but be forewarned, I use the word “horror” loosely here. There are certainly some horrifying moments, but for the most part this is an atmospheric ghost story. There is a lot of internal rumination on the part of the first-person narrator, which slows the pace of the narrative, but the tension is maintained. If you appreciate artful writing, you won’t mind the slow but steady build to the climax.
Should you read this novel, or if you have already read it, I invite you to leave a comment.