Sleep Over takes a different approach than most apocalyptic novels. H.G. Bells’ debut eschews the personal focus of most of these sorts of books, taking a wider view of the impending end times, and creates a threat that can’t easily be beaten or strategized against—zombies can be shot in the head, viruses can be cured, and environmental disasters can be adapted to. But no one can survive without sleep. By creating a disaster with no known cause and no possible cure, Bells can focus her story on examining how the world falls to pieces, and what it takes to survive when faced with something truly insurmountable.
No one on Earth can sleep anymore. At first, it just seems like an ordinary bout of insomnia—a momentary blip in the accepted routine. But as the days turn into weeks, the bouts of sleeplessness, a disorder akin to fatal insomnia, linger and spread. Like Max Brooks’ World War Z, Sleep Over is an oral history of a dire event, following various personal accounts, from imageboard denizens involved in riots at the CDC, to the employee of an energy drink company who becomes targeted by internet vigilantism in the early days of the pandemic, to a journalist trying to warn people of a possible symptom of the plague, to others trying to last one more day in a world crumbling to bits.
The point of Sleep Over isn’t really the plague of sleeplessness. The insomnia is introduced quickly, and no one has any clue what triggered it. It’s not something people can fight or face down, and there’s no obvious vector to analyze or outbreak to contain. The insomnia just sort of…is. There’s no real way to strike back. Once these circumstances are established, Bells gets into the nitty-gritty of examining the collapse of society. In its scrapbooked accounts, we see the ways systems, institutions, and people around the world react to the realization they’re stuck in an impossible situation, and witness their inadequate attempts to get out of it. Some of the effects are almost mundane—the transit system is halted when no one can drive without causing severe accidents. Others are more dire: patients start robbing doctors, and hospitals are soon filled to bursting.
There is, however, an oddly lingering optimism, a recurring theme of people supporting others and being themselves supported. Those who survive the best through the sleeplessness are the ones who find a group of people they canrely on—one group of close-knit friends works in shifts to keep one another alive as part of a sort of dare; another man decides to caretake the comatose “starers” he encounters, forming a close bond with a neighbor in the process; one man even finds companionship in his horse, who helps him survive both isolation and the plague. The quiet connections help soften what could be an unrelentingly bleak book, not only capturing moments of deep intimacy and connection within the maelstrom, but making them matter.
Sleep Over is a dark work of horror, pitting humans against a seemingly insurmountable phenomena. In its sometimes nightmarish scenes of a world falling into ruin, it manages to be as thought-provoking as it is disturbing, as each new event adds to the chaos. But Bells also finds relief, as people come together, even at the worst of times. It’s a story of a world beaten, but not broken; an impressive debut that will, dare I say it, keep you up nights.