Fiction Reviews

Black Moon

(2014) Kenneth Calhoun, Hogarth, £12.99, hrdbk, 277pp, ISBN 978-1-781-09014-5


George Romero has a lot to answer for: Zombies are everywhere now, and unlike those early shambling undead critters the current lot come in many different shapes and sizes. Most of them aren’t even zombies at all, in the traditional sense. Like the scary fast running things in World War Z or 28 Days/Weeks Later or the human guinea pigs in the recent SyFy series Helix. Or like the sleepless people in Black Moon. Zombies never get mentioned. But there they are, shambling, incoherent and wanting nothing more than bash the brains in of the few people who have escaped the curse. So far so similar.

But Black Moon is much more than a zombie horror. It is one of those what-if apocalypse books. Change something we take for granted and watch the world disintegrate. The plot, broadly, is that a virus sweeps the world causing most people to be unable to sleep. At first that leads to recognisable sleep loss effects – agitation, loss of concentration, impaired reasoning. And then the brain stops being able to distinguish between reality and dreams and people steadily lose their grip on sanity.

What seems to enrage the insomniacs the most is the fact that some people are still able to sleep. Pictures on the internet of a sleeping baby lead to calls for the baby to be killed, resented for her ability to recharge her brain through sleep. And then, of course, the internet and all other services fail as people become too tired or too distracted to go to work – and then the food runs out.

The story follows separate individuals, all in the same part of the United States, as they try and survive. Some can sleep, like Biggs who goes in search of his wife, Carolyn, who has wandered off, and Lila, a young girl whose parents chain themselves to their piano in moments of lucidity to stop themselves killing their daughter in a brain-addled rage. Some are insomniacs, like the tragic Chase, who gets the sleepless bug late and fends it off initially with medication, then descends into insanity. And lastly there are people in a sleep-research centre, who search for a surgical solution to keep themselves alive. Felicia, Chase’s girlfriend, is one of the researchers and her search for her missing boyfriend leads to a stunning and poignant climax.

This was a very engaging, enjoyable read. Kenneth Calhoun is a strong writer who understands how to plot with tension and the power of deft characterisation. It is an implausible scenario but he ends up making feel quite believable.

This is his first full-length novel, though he has had a few short stories published in various places. In places that shows; it is not perfect, by any means, and not all the plot threads are neatly tied up at the end. There is also one place where one part of the story resolves in a way which is well written and completely credible (given the context) but unsatisfying, given our emotional investment in a particular character.

My favourite is the young girl, Lila, who hides behind an owl mask so that no one can see when she’s sleeping. She hangs in there, against the odds. And she survives without losing her humanity. Hope for us all.

So, a thoughtful and well-paced apocalypse story of sorts. It concentrates on character, not gore and violence, and has a pleasant untidiness about it. But I suspect this is a marmite book. Some – like me – will enjoy Black Moon immensely but others will probably be frustrated by its structure and restraint. Nevertheless, I give it a strong recommendation.

Mark Bilsborough

See also Peter's take on Black Moon.

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