Book Review: Insomnia – Stephen King

Insomnia

I’ve just finished Stephen King’s Insomnia, and my first coherent thought on the matter is:

Damn, he writes a good story.

(To clarify, it wasn’t actually my first thought – that was something along the lines of ‘well, I didn’t see that coming,’ but it sounds better like this, so if you could cut me some slack for some creative wrangling in the hope of writing a better review, that would be lovely).

This did not, of course, come as a surprise. Whether it’s horror, adventure, or the delightful pieces that fall somewhere in the middle, such as his short story collection entitled Full Dark, No Stars, Stephen King knows how to spin a good yarn. When I pick up one of his books, I know that what I read, regardless of genre, target audience, or even somewhat dubious cover art – there’s always that one cover that just doesn’t work – will be of excellent quality.

To take a case in point: Insomnia.

I’m still not entirely sure how to categorise it. There are elements of distinct horror, featuring predominantly in undoubtedly vivid visual imagery, but the novel as a whole reads almost like an adventure story, with two heroic characters prevailing bravely against the forces of evil. Nonetheless, they don’t truly ‘prevail’ as much as they endure, and as heroes, neither character meets the standard type. To coin what I’m sure must be a cliché by now, they are more truly two ordinary people forced into extraordinary circumstances.

That is why I enjoyed it, of course. Ralph and Lois are just two regular people. You and I, perhaps, give or take a couple years and the requisite genitalia. At the beginning of the novel, they aren’t in possession of any unusual abilities, and they’re not particularly unusual, either. They’re just people. It’s difficult not to relate to them, in a general sense, and equally difficult not to sympathise with their suffering. Arguably, protagonists need this quality to work as protagonists, because it is very difficult to read a book featuring main characters that you find nauseating on a good day.

This, I maintain, is part of what makes a Stephen King book special: it draws you in, not only to experience the story and the world he created, but into its characters, too. Into their lives, their hopes, their dreams and their nightmares. The reader is privy to it all, and not once does it feel anything less than real. Ralph Roberts is the kind of man I’m sure I’ve spoken to before, and Lois Chasse the kind of woman I’d like to know. They feel two-dimensional and realistic, ultimately believable.

Now for the plot. The whole time I was reading, I tried to second-guess where it was going. Where it was leading me. Yet try as I might – and I did try – I could only anticipate tiny, unimportant, insignificant fragments. This is not to say I was constantly surprised by twists that failed to work, but, rather, that the story was refreshingly unpredictable within its set boundaries, and in possession of enough interesting reveals to keep me guessing, invested, and, arguably most importantly, reading. While complicated, it was far from incomprehensible, and the distinct feeling that I was learning what was happening with Ralph not unwelcome as an artfully employed method of imparting necessary information.

Lastly, Stephen King managed to not only produce an intriguing narrative with an expertly paced plotline and believable, realistic characters, but also something of an investigation into human nature that didn’t seem even the slightest bit out of place. The reader cannot help but contrast the decisions made by Ralph and Lois – decisions made out of empathy, love, and loyalty – with the decisions made by Clotho and Lachesis: rational choices decided upon in reference to a wider context and far-reaching concerns, and wonder about the kind of beings we would be if we lived far longer.

Insomnia encourages the reader to look deeper, to think, at length, about the truth of human nature and abstract concepts such as love, duty and compassion, and this, I think, is why I will read any book with Stephen King’s name on it. King has the ability to punch straight to the heart of things, to capture the very essence of mankind’s existence without ever failing to produce a strong, arresting narrative, and that is why they are always worth reading.

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