(For our final Halloween themed article of the month, 80s Baby welcomes another guest contributor- Hattie Hayes!)
As a kid, I had no stomach whatsoever for scary things. This included purposeful horror, like haunted houses, but also things that I deemed “scary,” like the trailer for Signs or any song that used theremin. More than once, I would wake up in a cold sweat because the oldies station I listened to at night played “Good Vibrations,” and I wouldn’t fall back asleep for hours, afraid that an equally-frightening instrument like a singing saw or a Moog might show up.
It was around the age of 11 that I started dipping my toes into horror, sneaking my parents’ books out of their room and reading them under the covers. It started with the Mary Higgins Clark novels (there were enough of them that I could grab two at at time without being noticed) and slowly spiraled out into the short-story collections and Thomas Harris books that were on my parents’ shelves.
And then, when I was 14, my dad came into my room and handed me his copy of Stephen King’s Insomnia. It was a massive brick of a book, even for me, a constant leisure-reader who put away 1,000 pages a week at minimum. He brought the book into my room, with no dust jacket or pretext, just a bookmark waiting eagerly for me on the first page.
I’d grown up around my parents’ love of King; I think they had almost every single novel and short story collection he put out. One of my early memories involves me realizing that my parents were watching the Cat’s Eye anthology film on TV and running out of the room. Another time, I found a copy of The Tommyknockers next to the bathtub. When I asked my mom what it was about, she rolled her eyes and said, “It’s aliens, which aren’t scary at all.” But Insomnia had never even been on my radar.
All of this to say that if you haven’t read Insomnia, then you probably haven’t really thought about Insomnia, because it is not one of King’s masterworks. The book was published in 1994 (a pinnacle year in entertainment- Hattie was nice enough to include a link for my old podcast here but I’m not sure it’s still live so I removed it- Ed), far enough into King’s career that he had bona fides to excuse a few overwritten, under-edited books saturated in old mythology. The timing contributed to the book’s absence from the essential King canon, too: Insomnia came out just a week before The Shawshank Redemption (See? She’s right. Pinnacle year -John again) hit theaters, and was published in between Gerald’s Game and The Green Mile. It’s easy to overlook. When readers had well over 15,000 pages of King’s writing to choose from, why would they pick an 800-page novel that the author himself dismissed as a “trying-too-hard” novel?
Well, I didn’t pick Insomnia. It was handed to me, and so I read it. And what comes as a surprise to me now, a few dozen books and short story collections later, is that I would gladly have Insomnia as my first-ever Stephen King book if given the choice again.
The actual plot of the book is, uh, a little lost in the weeds at times. The main character, retiree and widow Ralph Roberts, can’t sleep — you figured that out, I’m sure. He starts seeing things, primarily the auras of his fellow townsfolk and an intergalactic version of the three Greek Fates, all of which serves to illuminate Ralph’s capital-p Purpose in stopping a mass murder at a pro-choice rally. Yes, I know. There are sharp, cohesive takes on abortion rights and domestic violence, there is a wild airplane hijacking, there is so much telepathy. There’s even a telltale deathwatch ticking along through the book, which, like the beetle of the same name and function in Practical Magic, still frightens me if I think about it too much.
All of this happens in Derry, which had some issues with another otherworldly being almost a decade before the events of Insomnia. The allusions to Pennywise are plentiful, and we get to see Derry rebuilding after the floods that follow the final meeting of the Loser’s Club. Discovering Derry through Insomnia, and later reading IT, felt like being told that I’d been taking a backwards, scenic route to the grocery store my whole life. So much of the pre-existing Derry lore is hinted at in Insomnia, making each subsequent book I read feel like a major piece of the puzzle. With a book as sprawling (and at times meandering) as Insomnia is, that underlying feeling of something just out of my reach, of something more, gave me the push to seek out more Stephen King as soon as the book was done.
I think it’s also important for me to tell you that while I’ve now read a majority of King’s catalog, Insomnia is the only Dark Tower book I’ve touched. That means that every mention of Patrick Danville or ka was utterly meaningless to me. I still haven’t let myself venture further into the Dark Tower realm, because I know that as soon as I start the series in earnest, it will completely consume my life, and I will not be able to read anything else until it’s done. The Crimson King’s appearance in Insomnia is terrifying enough as a standalone; imagine how much scarier I’ll find the book when I know who or what the hell that is.
I don’t know if I would’ve enjoyed Insomnia as much if it’d been a later-in-life read, or if it had followed The Shining or Misery in my reading log. The book is King at his most manic, the novel itself a result of his sleep deprivation; readers are provided with a tasting platter of King’s themes, watery hyper-realities served next to a treatise on the morbid monotony of aging. For most King devotees, its value is probably dependent on whether the reader favors the claustrophobic domestic terror of Salem’s Lot, the rapture-cum-cephalopods of The Mist, or the road-trip exorcism of Desperation. But for my teenage self, just beginning to explore a catalog three times older than me, Insomnia threw open the doors to full-fledged horror fandom in a way that no other book could have done.
- Rose Madder, which King has characterized along with Insomnia as one of his least favorite works, came out the following year.
- There is no greater pleasure in life than a subplot from The Dark Tower series going way, way over your head.
- My mom was right about aliens.
Hattie Hayes is an actor and comedian based in Queens, New York. Check out Hattie’s podcast with fellow contributor, Sarah Kennedy, entitled Taydar, and find Hattie and her sketch group Infinite Sketch on Twitter.
If you’ve never read Insomnia and Hattie’s review has piqued your interest you can pick it up at the link below. 80s Baby may receive a commission from the sale.