A review of The Sleep Room, by F.R. Tallis
When he is offered a job running a sleep study at a remote mental hospital, Dr. James Richardson is quick to accept. He leaves London for Wyldehope Hall, an old mansion in the depths of the Suffolk countryside, where it is his job to run the facility and oversee the care of all the patients, including six young women with troubled backgrounds who have been diagnosed as schizophrenic. As part of a revolutionary new study, they are kept in an artificial sleep for weeks at a time.
James soon begins to notice strange things happening in the hospital; things that can’t be easily explained away. And as his fears increase, it seems he might be caught in the midst of a nightmare.
This is a clever little period drama that explores our perceptions of mental illness and the history of psychiatry. Set in post-war England, it follows James Richardson, a young, progressive psychiatrist as he settles into an exciting new job at Wyldehope Hall.
His mentor, Hugh Maitland, is a famous psychiatrist and James is keen to impress him. At the centre of the story is Maitland’s sleep study, a progressive treatment plan that keeps its participants in an artificial sleep, where they are woken at regular intervals to allow them to eat and use the bathroom. They are kept together on a private ward – the sleep room – in the basement of the hall.
Despite his best efforts, James can get Maitland to reveal little about the women involved in the study. But as the book progresses, we see how each woman came to be treated at Wyldehope Hall through the letters that referred them to the programme and begin to suspect that their similar histories might have contributed to their current state.
The author manages to deftly build an oppressively sinister atmosphere throughout the novel, often using only the slightest of events or reactions from characters. Particularly effective is the brief flash of religious imagery we see in the sleep room, as the young nurse assigned to the night shift always seems unsettled by her task, hiding her Bible away whenever James comes into the room to check on her, giving the impression that something unseen is lurking at the hospital.
The Sleep Room is a contemporary Gothic horror, full of the symbolism and imagery we’ve come to know in classic novels such as The Turn of the Screw. Wyldehope Hall itself is as the heart of this tale: a rundown old mansion in the middle of desolate marshlands, overlooking a rugged Suffolk coastline, it is full of dark corners, twisting staircases and sinister basements. The setting also evoked memories of The Woman in Black, in particular one scene involving a nurse who goes missing in the middle of the night.
The building is inexplicably tied to the action and the state of the characters; as the condition of Wyldehope Hall deteriorates, so does the mental and physical state of several characters, culminating in a number of shocking moments as the story reaches its climax, including an ending that I did not expect.
This is a novel that will intrigue and chill you, and make you question the notion of what is real. A fantastic update on the Gothic horror genre – really enjoyed it!
Find out more about the book:
The Sleep Room on Amazon (affiliate link)
The Sleep Room on Goodreads
Please note: I received an advance copy of this book as part of the Amazon Vine programme, however opinions are my own.