Book Review: The Sleep Room (2013)


sleep room

by Alan F. Zundel

“The Sleep Room” is a deliciously old-fashioned spooky tale—part ghost story, part mystery, and part horror. I like to read before bedtime and this one had me reluctant to turn out the lights.

It has a classic setup with a unique plot device. An ambitious young professional, Dr. James Richardson, gets a job invitation to work with a brilliant but calculating mentor conducting a bizarre experiment. The mentor, Dr. Hugh Maitland, is a psychiatrist running a clinic for acute mental health cases in an old lodge at a remote and isolated seacoast. Of course, Richardson’s predecessor left abruptly for reasons that are left vague.

An advanced thinker for England in the years just after the Second World War, Maitland disdains traditional psychoanalysts as “couch merchants” and believes the solution to severe mental illness lies in the brain. His experimental treatment is to keep his patients in a chemically induced sleep for months at a time, partially waking them briefly each day only for necessary body functions. All of his sleepers are young woman who have been abandoned and abused in their childhood.

The sleep room is a creepy place, a dim basement room with two rows of beds holding the woman in coma-like states hooked up to monitoring devices. Eventually Richardson discovers the women all seem to be dreaming at the same time; when one has rapid eyes movements under her eyelids, they all do. But this is not the only mystery. He hears sighs in his room when no one is there with him, a ring disappears from a bed stand and appears on the floor in another room, beds shake at night, and the nurse on duty in the sleep room is becoming increasingly distraught.

In an interview at the end of the book the author, F.R. Tallis, reveals that Maitland and his sleep room are modeled after a real person, Dr. William Sargant, who co-authored a book on his methods, “An introduction to Physical Methods of Treatment in Psychiatry” (1944), and a classic work on brainwashing, “Battle for the Mind” (1957). I don’t know if truth is stranger than fiction, but it sure can compete with it.

The writing in “The Sleep Room” is clear, straightforward, and efficient, told in the voice of Dr. Richardson. His detachment and analytical mind make the strange goings-on all the more convincing. I haven’t read anything else by Tallis, a psychologist who is known for writing award-winning mysteries, so I don’t know if this is his typical style of writing, but it was very effective for this book.

Not that there aren’t passages that are more evocative. Richardson is permitted to wax poetic from time to time to give the scenes more color:

“On the landing, the candle light was too weak to repel the darkness, which pressed at the edges of a pathetically small sphere of illumination. It was a darkness that made me feel utterly alone. I could sense its enormity, its infinite expansion beyond the walls, across the heath and the grazing marsh and the sea. Midwinter darkness. It awakened primordial fears, and I was returned to a primitive state of trembling ignorance: huddled in some ancestral cave, gazing out of its mouth at a night that concealed unimaginable terrors.”

One of the scenes is everyone’s worst nightmare. Richardson awakens suddenly in the pitch dark and senses a presence in his room. He pulls the blankets up to cover his head like a child, having already been through enough to entertain the thought of supernatural forces at work. Then something tugs the blankets back in the other direction, finally ripping them away and casting them across the room!

Tempering the ghostly stuff is a love story between Richardson and an attractive nurse, Jane Turner. This functions at first to keep the story moving while Tallis takes his time slowly escalating the spooky business. The descriptions of the affair are a little flat, not as engaging as the central plot, but this may also have been intentional, as a crisis in the relationship shows Richardson to have some issues of his own that he has been hiding.

At the end of the story there is a twist, one in keeping with the genre’s expectations but that I didn’t see coming but. I’m not sure if I bought it, but it didn’t ruin anything as the main tale had already reached a satisfying climax. Tallis may have been making a respectful gesture to tradition here.

The novel has the feel of a black-and-white British horror movie from the 1950s, like I used to watch on the Canadian television station from across the river in Detroit when I was a teenager. In an interview at the end of the book, the author admits that this was exactly what he was trying to recreate. It brought me back to my youth, and how much I loved watching and reading horror stories while staying at my grandmother’s house.

Grandma’s favorite saying: “I like spooky stories.” I do to, Grandma, and I liked this one a lot.

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