I work with horror fiction a lot, and it doesn’t so much breed contempt as familiarity. You’re on nodding acquaintance with were-things, you listen sympathetically to the vampires making 5 years out of date Twilight jokes, hold doors open for the haunted parapsychologists and the things doing the haunting that sort of thing. It’s like working inside the postmodern fictional version of the Cabin in Cabin in the Woods. These things are all dangerous, all nightmarish but…so’s your coffee mug and you see that every day too.
As a result, when something does truly scare you, you notice and a couple of years ago I realized what one of my deepest fears was; not being able to sleep. I had a throat infection that got so bad I couldn’t sleep for more than about 45 minutes at a time. It took two weeks to clear and those two weeks of grey, endless consciousness were the sort of warm at the edges nightmare that I still catch myself thinking about sometimes.
Set in the Barbican Centre in London, Sleepless follows a group of teenagers hurtling towards the edge of the cliff we all jump off; the end of adolescence. The Clerkenwell School expects nothing less than excellence and with the most important exams of their lives facing the characters they’re all struggling. Of course none of them are admitting that; adolescence is a game of chicken after all and the first one to blink is the first one to lose power. So, Izzy, Grey, Tigs, Juliet, Dom, Mia and Noah all front up and keep going. Until Tigs, who makes sure she always has the answers and the power, provides them with the solution; a study drug. One that will give them the focus they need to excel. A legal(ish) high for a good cause, the others embrace it with open arms despite knowing full well the biggest side effect will be Tigs’ gaining yet more power over them.
But Clerkenwell is Clerkenwell and they have no choice. One last push. One last epic training montage out into that awful colour the sky goes just before it starts to get light. Except something is pushing back…
Morgan’s always had an unwavering ability to read how people interact and the complex power dynamic of this particular group lets her really show that off. Dom and Mia are twins who are more competitive than at least one of them wants to admit, Grey is the embodiment of elegantly wasted cynical teenage pseudo wisdom and Izzy, the lead, is a slightly desperate, slightly panicked outsider. Izzy’s the perfect entry point for a book, and a world, like this. Gifted but without any of the ease her friends seem to enjoy, she feels like she constantly has to earn her spot, and at the same time is resentful of wanting that. She’s an adolescent knot wrapped in past trauma and the desperate need for something to happen and the book’s best scenes come from her reactions to events. The book’s best scare, by a mile, is one entirely from her point of view that’s as elegantly handled as it is chilling. Izzy may not feel like she belongs but it’s hard to imagine this book working so well with anyone else in the leading role.
But she doesn’t let her supporting characters off the hook either. In fact in one case Morgan takes great delight in driving them down onto the hook with tremendous force. Everyone here has their moment in the sun. They’re usually terrified and covered in blood when they do but they still get a chance to shine and each is revealed to have far more depth than you expect. Tigs in particular is transformed from a graduate of Mean Girl School into someone who still isn’t likeable but is fundamentally understandable and sympathetic. There are no monsters here, just victims and it’s what they’re victims of that drives the book. Something’s waiting for them out in the wilds we all normally sleep through. Shapes glimpsed at the edge of vision, hallucinations, loss of time. Their perception of reality is fed from, becoming splintered and jagged as one by one they’re picked off by something none of them are allowed to see. This is where Morgan’s genius really comes into play as we’re left to make our own minds up about the exact nature of the threat. One read says the pills are supernatural in origin, another that they cause pharmacological brain damage that in turn leads to the users becoming violent. Another still implies that all the pills do is unlock the doors in our minds that keep the awful things out. All of these solutions work, all of them have clues on the page and Morgan is confident enough in both her work and her readers to let them pick what works best. The fact her characters, trapped in the Barbican Centre, their own minds and a cycle of violence, don’t get to choose at all only makes it more horrifying.
Sleepless is a massively strong entry for the new RedEye imprint. It’s endlessly clever, relentlessly nasty and shows Morgan is clearly at home in both the horror and YA genres. Shot through with the grainy adrenalin surge you only get from sleep deprivation, it’ll keep you up at nights. Or it should if you want to survive…