Review: Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun

Thanks to a billing error on Comcast’s part that they refused to fix, we have been without internet at our apartment for the past few weeks.  What’s a girl to do then?  Pick up a book.

Black Moon is about a widespread, unexplained insomnia epidemic shown through the eyes of several different characters.  Together they show how it effects people from all walks of life in different stages of sleeplessness, from a married man who can still sleep coping with the deterioration of his insomniac wife, to a young woman working at a sleep center trying to find a cure for her own and everyone else’s insomnia.  The alternation between characters goes a long way toward making the epidemic seem all the more real, and this is one reason why I favor stories with multiple protagonists.

In many ways it’s a different take on the ever-popular zombie apocalypse.  The story handles insomnia, as a disease and an epidemic, in a somewhat realistic way.  On a widespread scale, it happens as a slow buildup, and suddenly few people are left with the resources to function in society.  People don’t believe it’s really happening at first, dismissing it as latest conspiracy theory.  By the time they realize the truth (usually because they become afflicted themselves), it’s too late.  On an individual scale you can see the mental deterioration of many insomniacs (and sleepers who can’t find a safe place to sleep), sometimes as it happens through the narration.  Calhoun does a great job of showing the changing mindset of the insomniacs over time through the breakdown of their grasp on language.  Lines like “They threw [tea] in the harbor is that what they did to gone it?” and “Hand me that axe with your own hand” may offend our inner grammarians but demonstrate how the insomniac’s mind goes in too many directions at once, rushing around without the ability to rest.

One part I did not fully understand about the story is the insomniacs’ tendency towards violence.  Upon seeing someone sleep the insomniacs go into a murderous rampage, which drives the few remaining sleepers to leave the safety of their homes to avoid the retaliation of insomniac family members.  I can understand jealousy or envy.  I can understand the feeling of “if I can’t sleep, nobody can.”  But an universal feeling of “this person sleeps so I will kill him” is a bit outside of my suspension of disbelief.  Perhaps it’s the use of one big lie too many:  Most people in the world are affected by insomnia, and they go into violent rages when they see people sleeping.  Whether the violence is a symptom of Calhoun’s particular brand of insomnia or insomnia in general, I don’t know.  But it did serve to heighten the danger for the few sleeping characters and turn the story into a variation of a zombie thriller.

And like any good zombie story, this one has its share of blood.  There are scenes of insomniacs descending upon sleepers in their bloodthirsty rage, scenes of genuine accidents, and scenes of suicide.  And not all of the protagonists make it out unscathed.

The cause or cure for the insomnia is never discovered in the story, but there is a workaround by the end.  It serves a basic purpose but will not measure up to the real thing.  We are reminded at the end that humanity has lost something essential to our experience and it can never be truly replaced.

While most of the storylines were tied up and connected by the end, one had a genuine loose end that let me down.  One of the protagonists set out to find his insomniac wife after she wandered off, and never found her.  By the end of the story, he gives up the search and mourns his loss.  The resolution (or lack thereof) in this part felt unsatisfying and perhaps rushed.

Anyone who is a fan of the zombie genre should give this story a chance.

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