Book Review: The Sleeping Dead by Richard Farren Barber

“A consummately told and brilliantly original story.”

Before the age of modern medicine, insanity was viewed like any other illness – not as something internal but as a malady that could infect you from outside. Richard Farren Barber takes this idea and gives it a modern, post-apocalyptic twist in his tremendous new novella The Sleeping Dead.

The story starts mundanely enough with the protagonist, a man called Jackson, travelling on a bus to a job interview. Right from the start there is a sense of unease; Barber is good at capturing the tension of modern urban living – the frustration of slow journeys on public transport and the odd behaviour of other passengers on the bus. Eventually the reason for the delay becomes clear: a crowd of people on the bridge stopping the bus from crossing, all passively staring down into the water of the river into which a suicidal man has just jumped. It’s the first glimpse of what is to become a truly horrific day.

The bulk of the plot of The Sleeping Dead takes place in the tall, modern office building in which Jackson has his interview. It’s here where he witnesses his second suicide of the day – a man smashing through the safety glass of the windows with his head, and throwing himself to the ground many storeys below. Incomprehensible – but Jackson starts to hear quiet voices in his own head, urging him to end it all as well.

He isn’t alone. Everyone in the building seems to be hearing the same voices and most of them don’t have the willpower to resist their logic for long. Jackson, teaming up with a woman called Susan from the floor below, resolves to escape the tall building – but how can people flee their own thoughts? There’s a risk that writing about a purely mental threat would leave Barber’s story unfocused and vague, but thanks to the crisp and engaging writing this isn’t the case – the reader is dragged compulsively into the madness and horror of Jackson’s situation.

Everything is shown from Jackson’s perspective – he’s a normal, even boring man, but fundamentally decent, and his very ordinariness allows the reader to understand him and root for him even when everything around him seems to have succumbed to madness. The other characters in the book are sketches by comparison, but that’s out of necessity – most of them aren’t alive for long.

The Sleeping Dead is nicely paced, the horror escalating as the reader comes to understand the true scale of the suicide epidemic. There’s some tremendously effective and disquieting imagery – Barber doesn’t shy away from even the grimmest implications of his setup. Perhaps the only misstep is the transition from the propulsive beginning and middle sections to a more sombre and ambiguous ending. Not that there’s anything wrong with the ending itself, but there’s the equivalent of a clunky gear change getting there, a jarring that could have been smoothed over by a slightly longer word count. But this is a small misstep in an otherwise consummately told and brilliantly original story.

It’s a cliché to say of horror stories that the ‘real monsters are us’ but The Sleeping Dead goes one step further – what will get you is not even other people, but the thoughts inside your own head. It’s as compelling and horrifying a story as you’ll read all year.

JAMES EVERINGTON

Publisher: DarkFuse
eBook (214pp)
Release Date: 12 August 2014

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