J. Gabriel Gates
Releases October 3, 2011
Confession time: I’m a big wuss. I don’t like gory horror movies. There are episodes of Supernatural and Fringe that have given me the heebie-jeebies and caused me to watch a silly comedy before going to bed. Reading suspenseful, well-written horror books can give me nightmares.
Which is why there’s no chance in hell that I would have ever read The Sleepwalkers right before bed. It freaked me out during sunny, middle of the day, 100+ degree afternoons, and yet, after 18 pages, I couldn’t bring myself to put it down. The very first chapter sets the story up perfectly and yet doesn’t really give any hints to what is coming down the road.
Slight vague spoilers ahead
Caleb just graduated from high school and he’s on his way to change the world as an ambitious journalist. His summer plans include going to Africa to write about kids with AIDS and then he’s going to go to an ivy league school, become editor of the New York Times, win a couple of Pulitzers and marry his perfect model-like girlfriend, who he really doesn’t care about all that much. His life is perfectly planned and nothing can cause him to stray from it.
During his graduation party, he receives an ominous letter from an old childhood friend from the other side of the country, saying she’s in terrible danger and she needs him to rescue her. And just like that, he strays from all his carefully created plans, hops on a plane with his best friend Bean, and heads to a tiny town in the panhandle of Florida. You know, one of those creepy, lost-in-time towns where everyone has a shotgun hiding in their kitchen and there’s a crazy witch living down the street. This is a town where people regularly disappear and no one really cares because that’s just what happens in this freaky little town. This is where Caleb grew up and where his childhood friend Christine is currently locked up in a Dream Center, being treated for nightmares and sleepwalking.
I’m a firm believer that kids can be the creepiest things in existence. They’re supposed to be all cute and innocent, and the next thing you know, they’re clawing your eyes out. It’s a common horror trope, but to add in the fact that these demon children are asleep when going on their rampages and don’t know what they’re doing upon waking up is even more freaky. The fact that Gates is able to tie this idea into a conspiracy-theory filled suspense story filled with curveballs is impressive.
Gates does wonderful things with cliché tropes, polishing them up and making them seem new again. The comedian best friend to lighten the mood? That would be Bean. Creepy kids? Many, many of those. A freaky, batshit insane clown? Yes, dear god, get it away from me! Our main character saving the girl? That happens a time or two. People hearing voices, telling them to do bad things? Yeah, that’s all over this book. The haunting voice heard through the static of a radio? Used wonderfully multiple times.
Despite all these things, it still felt like a fresh and creative book. The dialogue felt natural and the characters were all intriguing. Best of all, not once did Caleb or any of the other characters do something so stupid that I started screaming at the book. Even the secondary characters were fleshed out enough that they didn’t seem like cardboard cutouts filling space. The shift in perspective between Caleb and other characters, such as Ron, the man searching for his missing daughter, and Margie, the beaten down waitress that just wants things to be normal, allowed for different perspectives that filled out the world more than if Caleb was our only point of view. The writing style also shifted a little depending on the perspective, though it wasn’t consistent. Sometimes Margie’s point of view would be told in southern slang and with a clear drawling accent, though it didn’t happen all the time. It was momentarily distracting the first time I noticed it, though it was a nice touch to the mood of the story at times. I just wish it had been used more consistently.
All of these plot points are things I’ve seen many times on television and in books, and yet that only allowed me to see Gates’ storytelling more vividly and enhanced the creeptacular elements of the story. For some reason, I kept imagining Caleb and Bean as the two guys from Reaper, even though they were the wrong age and wrong appearance, but it still worked out. Putting familiar faces on to the characters helped me not have nightmares in the end. This is not to say that Gates doesn’t create characters that stand on their own because he does. I just found a similarity to the dialogue styles that brought those television characters to mind.
Even though the characters are mostly teenagers, I wouldn’t qualify this as a YA title at all. There is a lot of bloodshed going on and the ending is traumatic on the surface and horrifying once the underlying implications are considered. Perhaps older teens would find it a satisfying read, but I think it might have done some permanent psychological damage had I read it when I was younger.
My one quibble with The Sleepwalkers was the very end. Despite all that had come before, those left standing were a bit too blasé about the entire thing, as though they had accidently come across a casualty-free car wreck and not what they had actually gone through. It was also left slightly open ended, but not enough that I would expect a sequel without some major rethinking of the implication of the final pages.
All in all, this is a satisfying horror novel with a lot of suspense and mystery. While some might be able to tell the curveballs before they’re thrown, I was completely knocked out by things I didn’t see coming a few times. I just suggest that, if you tend to have nightmares, don’t read this before bed.
Creepy, creepy, creepy; great character development; twisty plot that kept me guessing and, when predictable, seemed to be so on purpose; highly recommend
A copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher