King's Highway pt. 37: Insomnia

You may have noticed a few design-changes here at DSO. Web design and blog formatting are not my strong suit, as is likely obvious from previous posts, or the gargantuan size of this new cover photo, and/or the endless-scrolling-slash-sprawl of each blog post... one of these days, I'll figure it all out. I look around at other blogspots, and they all look nice and organized, so I know it can be done. But in the meantime:

This is the cover to the paperback I have. This book in particular has many alternate designs/ covers.
The original hardcover Viking edition was issued with dust jackets in two complementary designs. This was the first,
and this was the second. Incidentally, it is this second version that I more frequently see in used bookstores. Ye book designers, take note.

The novel begins with Ralph Roberts, a widower/ "I-guy" narrator familiar to many a King story, witnessing his friend Ed Deepneau get sideswiped by a truck, at which point Ed lunges from his car and accuses the trucker of trafficking baby corpses under his tarp. Ralph intervenes, and Dorrance, a quiet, odd man always reading books of poetry, (and who in the words of Bev Vincent from his Road to the Dark Tower book (which I haven't read) "wanders through the novel like deus ex machina personified") warns Ralph "not to get mixed up in long-term business."

A beginning custom-designed to hook me. Starts off with a bang, and gets my Huh? Must know more RPMs a-revvin'.
After Ralph helps apprehend Ed after the savage beating of Ed's wife, he begins to suffer from the kind of chronic insomnia where you start to see things unseen by others: "colorful manifestations of life-force surrounding people (auras), and diminutive white-coated beings that he calls "little bald doctors", based on their appearance." (from the wiki) He perceives other planes of reality (other levels of the Tower, more on that below) and their influence upon the "real" world.

He finds that Lois Chasse, who is referred to as "Our Lois" a few too many times for this reader's liking, is also losing sleep/ seeing these auras. Insomnia also bestows them with the ability to "drink" from other people's auras (as inexhaustible as the oceans) and get bursts of energy/ reverse aging. (They also develop the ability to fire magic missiles.) Their insomnia is induced by "long-timers," i.e. those from a different level of the Tower, where time flows much differently: Lochesis and Clothos, the two little bald doctors, who serve The Purpose, and Atropos, an agent of the Random.

"Ed is a blank card, up for grabs by either Random or Purpose. Only Short-Timers like Ralph and Lois can oppose Atropos. Dorrance tells them that the work of the higher universe has 'almost completely come to a stop as both those of the Random and the Purpose turn to mark your progress.'"
This Random/ Purpose stuff is the heart of the mystery of the novel, and King's meditations are best discovered en route and on one's own. For our purposes here, it's enough to know that this struggle also involves our old friend the Crimson King, who continues to seek the destruction of the Tower/ mastery of... well, I can't say, really, as I don't know yet. But the struggle of the Dark Tower has spilled over - not for the first or last time - into Derry, Maine.

(I forgot to mention - this takes place in Derry, ME.)

With the help of Clothos and Lachesis, Ralph and Lois thwart Ed's plan, and the Tower, presumably, still stands.


The aforementioned Dorrance as aided and abetted by his ka-tet companion Dr. Wyzer (who used to be "Dr. Wyze but now is older and Wyzer") - fascinating folks who apparently know more about this short-term/ long-term business than they let on. The way they appear/ are used here makes me think they'll be back. (Or, if they do not, King is keeping some Dorrance/ Wyzer tale-to-come in his backpocket.)

Similarly, Patrick Danville, the boy whose survival is so paramount to stave off the end of the omniverse that the folks who occupy the penthouse suites of the Tower send Clotho and Lachesis into Ralph and Lois' lives, plays a pivotal role in the Dark Tower series, but I won't know it til I get there. All he does here is sit by his Mom and draw Roland, the Crimson King, and the Tower, near the end.

Susan Day, the lady whose imminent speech at the Derry Convention Center is the source of all the friction in town, is not to be confused with the Partridge Family/ L.A. Law alum:

Tho I wondered throughout if the big reveal was going to be that they were one and the same.
I was criticized in a creative writing class I took as an undergrad for not allowing a female character to "speak" in one of my stories. That story was about how break-ups and divorces leave this wake of silence in the men's lives affected by them, so for me, it was a sound construction choice. Nevertheless, I added a section where the main character discovers a letter from his ex, and maybe it improved it, I don't know. Anyway, I thought of that here, as Susan Day is discussed/ fretted over/ planned for/ causes so much upheaval, but we only get a long-shot: a snippet of her speech and that's that. I didn't mind. Maybe the advice we get as undergrads isn't so much something to live by as it is a jumping-off point. But I always chafe at the idea of approaching a story not by what works for it but what works for the agenda one-thinks-all-stories-should-promote.

Lesson learned: never take advice on women's-voices from a professor who habitually wore mini-skirts with flame-red panties to class. Or, always. (One or the other, I am sure.)

And, Atropos, Clotho, and Lachesis, the long-timers. Complicated characters. Ralph's rage at the latter two sometimes come across as a bit forced or unnecessary. Not that it's is unjustified, just it slows things down in spots.

Ralph names them after these three ladies from Greek mythology, the Moirai, aka "the three fates." Curiously, these figures appear more or less the same across a variety of cultures. Collective unconscious at work? Or evidence of a pre-Ice-Age civilization that seeded the world? Both? Neither? ALIENS?
They also play a rather pivotal role (as The Kindly Ones) in the end of Gaiman et al's The Sandman.
They almost always appear as female. I thought it was a great choice for King to turn them into men, here, (well, not that he's saying Clotho et al. are the Three Fates, that's just what comes to mind for Ralph and we see it via his perspective) considering the gender-concerns of the narrative.

Atropos, particularly, is written very well. Petty, creepy, mysterious, gross. He is described at one point as "the joker in the deck." I thought that was a great metaphor; to anyone who's ever sought meaning in someone's random death or undeserved/ unearned misfortune, it makes sense. The joker was drawn.

From DeviantArt by dger-dem
He also collects things from those he marks:

(Ralph's) feet struck a cardboard box and knocked it over, spilling out a jumble of stuff: mismatched gloves and socks, a couple of old paperbacks, a pair of Bermuda shorts, a screwdriver with smears of maroon stuff - maybe paint, maybe blood - on its steel shaft... Rings and magazines; keychains and umbrellas; hats and glasses; rattles and radios. They looked like different things, but Ralph thought they were really the same thing: the faint, sorrowing voices of people who had been written out of the script in the middle of the second act while they were still learning their lines for the third, people who had been unceremoniously hailed off before their work was done or their obligations fulfilled, people whose only crime had been to be born in the Random... and to have caught the eye of the madman with the rusty scalpel.


The place was more than a museum or a packrat's lair, Ralph realized; it was a profane church where Atropos took his own version of Communion - grief for bread, tears for wine.

There are, as Kev notes in that review linked-to below, some interesting parallels and connections with It - this bit in the underground, quasi-dimensional lair of Atropos reminded me of the Losers Club's descent into the sewers to fight It. "I can taste your fear on my tongue!"

I should mention Fringe before we move on. People have often made the connection between the Observers and the Watchers from the Marvel Universe, and I understand further revelations re: their purpose to Fringe obscure the connection a little, but I can't help think JJ Abrams took a bit of inspiration for them from King, here.

I always cast around for good book review to link to for these things, and I agree with Kev's general take on Insomnia, particularly his verdict that this is a difficult novel to assess but not a difficult one to access. Two bits from his review are worth reproducing here:

"If the opening of the novel is a rumination on age and death, the book now becomes an exploration of purpose."


"King approaches the pro-choice/pro-life issue judiciously, never letting his authorial voice take a side. Much of Insomnia tackles contemporary topics - feminism, spousal abuse, and homophobia among them (this latter most interesting, specifically addressing the murder of Adrian Mellon in It) - without allowing the novel to become mired in them, broaching them only in service to the plot. One interesting sequence involves Ralph attempting to save a group of feminists who resist him because he is a man; later, they are decimated by a pro-life extremist they trusted because she is a woman... the issues are not black and white, and King never seems to be soapboxing; Insomnia is served well by showing, not telling."

This last point is important, I think. Before I started reading this, a friend cautioned me that I wouldn't like it "because of the politics." Presumably, he thought I'd feel King was being preachy, or proceeding from false premises, but I didn't get that from this at all. I can think of few more hot-button topics than abortion, so it'd be easy/ perhaps-tempting to do, but I agree with the above. King shows us crazies as well as reasonable folks on both sides of the issue. When it comes down to it, Ralph Roberts says it best: he might not agree with abortion but he damn sure agrees with protecting a woman and her child from getting murdered over it.

And it even has Connie Chung! My father-in-law will be pleased, if he reads it.
I was worried one side of the debate would be privileged over the other, but outside of the pro-abortion people all being described as "intelligent, stunning-looking" and the anti-abortion people all being described as redneck toothless crazies (a bit leading, tho one would hardly notice these days, where it's done every night on the news, for God's sake), I think reasonable perspectives are given all around and I doubt anyone will feel insulted, regardless of his/her beliefs.

A few years back I finally got around to seeing The Gift with Cate Blanchett. I'd heard from friends for years that Oh yeah Katie Holmes gets naked in it. (Presumably, this was meant to entice me, but I don't really have the hots for Katie Holmes, I have to say. She's obviously not unattractive, but two words: Joey Potter, i.e. a creation, like mustard gas, designed to inflict pain and agitation) But, no one told me this happened at the very end of the film, so up until that point, she keeps appearing naked, but only as a corpse. So, until I got to the non-corpse nudity, I kept thinking, Man, I've got some really sick friends...

I felt something similar while reading Insomnia (and most particularly Rose Madder, for which I received the same caveat) - at what exactly did my friends think I'd balk? Sympathizing with women getting the shit beat out of them? Wanting their abusers to face justice/ get what's coming to them? Promoting the idea that women's shelters should be protected from crazies/ vengeful exes? As I said above, I'm sure they figured I'd think King was being too preachy (and not to put anyone on the spot; this particular friend doesn't even read this blog, the bastard), but just the same, for future reference, folks: Bryan McMillan is 100% and unwaveringly on the side of people who don't bomb abortion clinics, beat their wives, or plot mass destruction of innocents to make any political point. (And he remains in the "Naked dead chicks aren't something to ogle" camp.)

The townsfolk of Twin Peaks might disagree with me, but that's okay.
Anyway, to get back to the first quoted bit, above, I made note of this section from Chapter 17:

No buzzers went off, no lights flashed, no orderlies came sprinting down the hallway, pushing the crash-wagon ahead of them. No one cried "Stat!" over the loudspeaker. Death was too common a visitor here for such things. Ralph guessed that it was not welcome, even under such circumstances as these, but it was familiar and accepted... He had died with the dignity that simple, expected things often hold. One or two moments of consciousness, accompanied by a slightly wider perception of what was going on around him, and then poof. Pack up all my care and woe, blackbird, bye-bye.

That comes at about the halfway part of the book, maybe a little more. But it seemed to be a good statement-of-purpose. This is a novel that looks death in the face, how to accept it, why to accept it, and, along the way, we get ruminations on the purpose of life/ the survival of children, and taking delight in these other temporary-containers-of-DNA with whom we share this sliver of spacetime.

Whom do you serve, the Purpose or the Random? Or the Crimson King? Good stuff. All of these threads intersect in the last thirty pages or so, and this reader was taken by surprise by the poignancy of the ending. Very sweet, sad, and satisfactory; not ashamed to say some tears were shed. (Had I known this, I wouldn't have finished reading it on the way home from work. Luckily, in Chicago, some dude sniffling/ getting teary-eyed over a novel is nothing compared to the sideshow from other commuters.)

- The way info is delivered/ deliberately-truncated to keep the reader on his or her toes is a tad irritating. As a result, I didn't really know what to make of several sections (the goo/ bugs around the civic center? Ralph's bomb/forearm? Some other bits.) But this is probably all cleared up with a re-read. (See KING'S HIGHWAY 2030: BRYAN RE-READS ALL THE KINGS! And then gets kicked out of the house by his long-suffering wife...)


- At one point, the Rosicrucians are mentioned. I will never be able to see or hear that word without thinking of William Cooper, who was so moved by the esoteric meaning of Bette Midler's "The Rose" that he devoted something like three hours of his old radio show to playing it over and over, whispering reverently at its beauty and depth.

Incidentally, after I made my way through the 40 hours of the show dubbed "Mystery Babylon," I wrote the guys who administer the site now to see if they sent out a bumper sticker, "I survived Mystery Babylon" or something. No response. Come on guys, not even a keychain? Lots of fascinating stuff in there, to be sure, (not the least of which: it was herein I discovered Dungeon, Fire and Sword) but taken with a silo of salt.)
- Save the Child, Save the Tower put me in mind of...

from Heroes, before it went screamingly-yet-so-boringly off the rails. (With apologies to any of its later-seasons fans)
- Auras have always fascinated me. A so-called psychic once told me mine has a "rosy-pink glow." I can't find a clip for it or I'd put it here, but something similar was said to Norm on Cheers once, to which he responded, "Well, I eat right." That always cracks me up. Wish I'd thought to reply the same.

- Ralph Roberts will return (briefly) in Bag of Bones, and we see Mike Hanlon and Ben Hanscomb (only mentioned, as the architect of the Derry Convention Center) from It make an appearance here.

- Someone posted this over at imdb. At first I thought it was the actual cast for a film I simply had no idea existed, but it's just dream-casting. Some bizarre choices. (Apollo from BSG as Joe Wyzer? He'd be a more interesting choice for Ed Deepneau, I think... though not my first.)

The appearance of Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins on this list makes me think its author may have just watched Stepbrothers before making it. Although Mary doesn't quite match the "large Spanish eyes" given to Lois in the novel, she actually would really work as Lois, I think. Are you listening, Hollywood? If so, greenlight this! And DREAMCATCHER 2: KILL, DUDDITS, KILL!
Rose Madder


  1. I has comments:

    (1) Bev Vincent is a man, not a woman.

    (2) "Insomnia" made me cry both times I read it.

    (3) Despite having read the novel twice, I don't really remember a heck of a lot about it. It's one of the ones that just didn't stick in my mind, for whatever reason. Although...

    (4) Do I remember correctly in thinking that at one point, it's revealed that Atropos has one of Gage Creed's sneakers in his horrific collection?

    1. re: 4 - good call! I just checked and indeed he does.

      Thanks for the info re: Mr. Vincent. I'll edit this momentarily to reflect the proper pronoun.