Book review: The Sleep Room by F. R. Tallis

Horror stories don’t have to be truly ‘horrible’ to keep readers gripped… sometimes the element of fear is more credible and more seductive when it creeps up on you in the most unexpected way.

The Sleep Room
The Sleep Room

Writer and clinical psychologist F.R.Tallis has an excellent grasp of the human mind and this knowledge puts extra power in his pen when it comes to writing ghost stories.

The Sleep Room, a fascinating cross between a medical thriller and a supernatural chiller, was inspired by the author’s interest in psychoanalysis and Henry James’ innovative late 19th century novella The Turn of the Screw which so perfectly combined ‘the strange and sinister’ with ‘the normal and easy.’

And it is that same sense of normality and shared intimacy with the central character which confounds and confuses as we are carried along through a maze of disturbing events and discoveries in a story that piques our curiosity as much as it spooks our imaginations.

Tallis has based his novel on the controversial psychiatrist William Sargant and his advocacy of narcosis or deep sleep therapy, a treatment developed in the 1920s which involved putting ‘problem’ patients to sleep for long periods of time, sometimes months, in the hope of alleviating their symptoms.

Sargant carried out his therapy on Ward 5 of the Royal Waterloo Hospital in London, which became known as the sleep room and, for Tallis, conjured up haunting images of a darkened ward full of slumbering patients… and became the defining motif of his engrossing novel.

Our narrator here is Dr James Richardson, a promising young psychiatrist, who is flattered to be offered a top post at remote Wyldehope Hall in Suffolk where the highly-esteemed Dr Hugh Maitland is carrying out a controversial therapy in which extremely disturbed patients are kept asleep for months in search of a cure.

If this radical and potentially dangerous procedure is successful, it could mean professional glory for both doctors.

Richardson doesn’t look back but as he settles into his new life, he begins to fear that there is something uncanny about the whole project. The sleep room has a threshold that seems ‘not merely physical, but psychological’ while inside the atmosphere is intense, almost religious with ‘suggestions of something beyond the reach of the senses.’

The sleeping patients are six women, all forsaken by society, all dressed in white gowns and all with no case notes other than their names, ages and diagnoses. Maitland is unwilling to discuss their past lives and the terrified trainee nurse who spends nights alone with them takes a prayer book with her to the sleep room.

Richardson is also rocked by a series of eerie incidents but when he discovers that the sleepers all start dreaming at the same time, he finds himself questioning his own sanity and everything he knows about the human mind as he attempts to uncover the shocking secrets of Wyldehope Hall…

The Sleep Room gains its dark power and presence not from stereotypical ghosts which screech and moan but through the unexplained, an almost indiscernible otherworldliness, a word spoken or unspoken and a Gothic atmosphere which feeds our wild imaginings.

In the hands of Tallis, the concept and realities of narcosis also become the stuff of nightmares, a therapy dreamed up by doctors keen to debunk Freud as an unscientific ‘couch merchant’ and instead dispensing barbiturates and expounding psychiatry as ‘a branch of medicine, not philosophy.’

Be warned… there’ll be no sleep until the last page has turned!

(Pan, paperback, £7.99)