Kenneth Calhoun has written a range of literary short fiction; his debut novel appeared a couple of months ago, and it falls under the general category of apocalyptic SF. Four characters make their way through the waking nightmare of a world plagued by an epidemic of insomnia.
Title: Black Moon
Author: Kenneth Calhoun
First published in March 2014
An unexplained epidemic has spread terminal sleeplessness across the world. Civilizations crumble as people lose touch with reality. Black Moon has no clear protagonist, but focuses on four characters who retain the ability to sleep:
Chase: a not particularly likeable man who takes drugs to try and beat the sleep, and ends up with an awkward side effect. He once dated Felicia, and knows that she has some connection to a research facility that might be a safe place.
Felicia: a student connected to a group researching possible cures, who volunteers for treatment and then sets out to find her family.
Biggs: an ad man searching for his missing partner, an artist named Carolyn who went missing after being afflicted by the sleep disorder.
Lila: a teen who wanders the land wearing a mascot’s head.
The book has a great premise, plausible characters, and outstanding renderings of the physical and psychological apocalypse. Calhoun describes a world of chronic terror and dislocation.
The story’s second half, in particular, will disappoint many readers. After many awkward jumps and omissions, the novel does not come to a clear conclusion. And while readers should expect that some character arcs will end in pointless death, those deaths and disappearances should evoke more emotion than they do.
Chase, holed up in a truck that had been transporting sheep, contemplates the night:
They came several times in the night for the sheep. Each time he was able to fend off the insomniacs by screaming and throwing sheep shit scooped off the floor. Sometimes he remembered to say his line about the animal, both of them, being afflicted with some kind of toxic disease. Other times he just savagely lashed out at the vague figures that emerged from the darkness, edging in from the boundaries of his vision. He kicked up at them as they closed in, but his feet never made contact and they vanished when he squinted and focused.
In the darkening plain he saw bonfires burning and he was envious of the light and heat. The temperature had dropped as night descended. There were matches in the front pocked of the waders, he knew, but what would he light? Maybe just one leg of the sheep like a torch. He sat shivering in his T-shirt and waders, listening to the murmur of voices, which was sometimes punctuated by shouts and screams—an eruption of unseen conflict. He sensed that a black moon had risen, a sphere of sleeplessness that pulled at the tides of blood….(189)
Originality: 4/6 Insomnia epidemics have been handled before, by writers including J.G. Ballard and China Mieville. Calhoun’s apocalypse has its own flavor, but the book does nothing particularly original, save in some of its distinct images.
Imagery: 6/6 Calhoun does a creepily credible job of depicting a civilization crumbling as everyone goes crazy with sleeplessness. The landscape recalls the horde of zombie apocalypse novels and shows—but Calhoun writes well, and he his story has a possible, if implausible, premise, that makes it spookier than the tales of walking dead that this book superficially recalls.
Story: 4/6 The story has great possibilities, but I finished the book feeling they had not been realized.
Characterization: 5/6 The characters have been well-drawn. Some readers may find it difficult to like, at least, the male characters, with whom we spend much of our time.
Emotional Response: 4/6 The book has real power in some places, but falters in others.
Overall score: 4/6 The book shows promise. Some diehard SF fans will see Calhoun as a literary writer who doesn’t understand SF. I think the book needs to be taken on its own terms. SF began as any speculative writing; genre should not require a membership card. While I had mixed feelings about this novel, but I will look for his future efforts.
In total, Black Moon receives 32/42