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No sleep til Armageddon Black Moon'

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Debut novel offers alternate take on society's fall

The end of the world has always been a popular subject for speculative fiction, but it seems that in recent years, the trend has exploded. We see story after story about the crumbling of our society, and while the root causes may differ - zombie outbreaks or alien invasions, ancient evils or out-of-control technologies the basic structure tends to remain familiar.

So when a different take on this trope appears, it catches one's attention.

Kenneth Calhoun's debut novel 'Black Moon' (Hogarth; $24) offers just such a take, a glimpse at a world whose end comes not from outside influences, but a betrayal by our own bodies and brains.

What happens when humanity can no longer sleep?

Chronic, unending insomnia has gradually gripped the vast majority of the world's population. People everywhere have lost the ability to sleep to dream and no matter how mightily they struggle, each and every one of them eventually succumbs to a hallucinatory madness filled with shadowy hallucinations, garbled syntax and uncontrollable rages. Sleep has become the most precious commodity so precious that those who can't are compelled by their own insanity to destroy those who can.

Biggs is one of the lucky ones; he still sleeps. But his wife Carolyn has descended into the restless madness. When she vanishes, he ventures out into the anarchy of the insomniacs in order to find her. There are others battling the demons of dreamlessness: Chase and Jordan have hoarded sleeping medication in an effort to stave off the inevitable; young high schooler Lila has adapted to living amongst the maddening crowd, hiding her restfulness as best she can; Felicia abandons her sleep center sanctuary in an effort to reunite with her familyand perhaps ex-boyfriend Chase.

Each of these people wanders the ever-wakeful wilderness, striving to find some way to save the ones that they love and themselves.

There's a surreal bleakness that permeates the pages of 'Black Moon.' Calhoun has captured an end-of-the-world scenario that is made compelling by its general plausibility. The idea that civilization could be brought to its knees by something as simple and as relatable as insomnia is a frightening one, yes, but Calhoun renders it with an air of possibility that makes it all the scarier.

The evolution of the sleepless is shown with a brutal clarity; there are moments throughout that illustrate the different (and descending) levels of this all-consuming insomnia. Of particular note are the voices of the afflicted; their ability to communicate deteriorates right along with their sanity. That lack of coherence is presented in such a way as to create truly chilling, unsettling moments. When that deterioration is accompanied by the unfettered rage inspired by bearing witness to a sleeper, Calhoun shows us a glimpse of the true horror inherent to his premise.

The fractured psyches of this world are reflected in the narrative; the story shifts abruptly from character to character as each of the protagonists fights his or her individual battles through a nightmarish landscape ironically populated by those who no longer have nightmares. Each suffers degrees of success and failure as the basic building blocks of society are bashed into dust against a hell of eternal wakefulness.

There are plenty of apocalyptic offerings in the literary realm, but very few of them offer anything like the range and resonance of 'Black Moon.' After reading it, you'll never be happier to fall asleep.


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