THE SLEEP EXPERIMENT by Jeremy Bates provides a sensationalistic retelling of the notorious urban legend about the Sleep Experiment in the Soviet Union, in which political prisoners were offered their freedom if they stayed awake for fourteen days, only to revert to murder, mutilation, and madness. The book is fun if a bit (intentionally) over the top.
In Bates’s story, Dr. Roy Wallis, a wealthy playboy psychology professor at UC Berkeley, sets out to recreate the experiment on two test subjects, aided by two assistants. The experiment becomes a nightmare nobody could have imagined–beyond Wallis himself, who has an ulterior research goal he wants to prove.
What I liked: The characterizations are strong across the board, from Wallis to his two assistants to the Australian backpackers who signed up to take part in the experiment. Bates does a great job balancing fascinating exposition about the still poorly understood phenomenon of sleep with thriller/horror elements and titillating sexual chemistry between some of the players. When things go wrong, the horror element achieves a satisfying if conventional gross out. Overall, the novel promises a sensational and titillating story about a sleep experiment, and you get it.
What didn’t quite work for me: Wallis’s characterization pivots as the plot requires, resulting in a forced quality as the tension builds, with plenty of scenes about problems that could have been easily avoided (which also included his congested love life). For me, the climax reaches for a good gross out and offers a decent twist reveal, but I wish it had been a little more startling. Overall, Bates made good choices to advance the story and bring it home, but as I’m so familiar with the original urban legend, I think I was expecting something more surprising.
Overall, this book was a lot of fun. THE SLEEP EXPERIMENT is surprisingly smart, a simple mad scientist story told in a titillating package.