Our relationship with sleep can sometimes be a tricky one. We’re either fighting against it, fighting for more of it, or, perhaps, dealing with something even more complex. Lack of sleep can cause forgetfulness, anxiety, and a slower reaction time, along with persistent fatigue. In more severe cases, sleep issues can lead to disorientation, paranoia, and unreliability. It’s no mystery, then, why sleep can play such an important role in suspense and thrillers. Add in stress, and it’s a miracle any characters inside a thriller are getting any sleep at all.
I researched a lot of different sleep disorders while working on my new book, The Girl from Widow Hills. Sleepwalking plays a big role in the set-up of the story: When Arden was a small child, she was swept away during a storm while sleepwalking, and became the center of a highly publicized search and rescue. She was the focus of a huge media story that captured the public interest, and became known as the girl from Widow Hills. The attention all became too much, and as soon as she was able, she changed her name to Olivia in the hopes of starting over as someone new. Two decades later, she’s done her best to escape her past. But as the twenty year anniversary of her story is approaching, she starts to feel like she’s being watched, and even begins sleepwalking again—which she hasn’t done since she was a child. Until one night, she wakes up in her yard, standing over a dead body, and knows she’s about to become the center of a story once more. Only this time, she’s the center of a murder investigation.
In thrillers, there can be a lot of fear around sleep: There’s the fear of what might happen when one is asleep, unable to protect themselves. There’s also the fear that a lack of sleep could cloud one’s judgement. But other times, there’s the fear of what one might be capable of instead—maybe without their knowledge.
Here are five other suspenseful novels that feature sleep issues at the heart of the story, heightening the very real fear for the characters—either for themselves, or for those around them.
When the Lights Go Out by Mary Kubica
Jessie isn’t sleeping. At all. Already dealing with the grief of losing her mother, Jessie soon finds herself at the center of a mystery questioning her own identity. As she searches for answers, she’s sent down a rabbit hole, her fear and paranoia exacerbated by an extreme insomnia, leaving the reader to question everything. The tension increases with every page, especially as her insomnia veers into very dangerous territory, and even Jessie isn’t sure whether what she’s seeing is a product of delusions, paranoia, or a terrifying reality.
Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson
Every morning, Christine wakes up with little memory of the last twenty years of her life. She learns that she’s suffering from amnesia following an accident years earlier, which has left her with the inability to form new lasting memories. She pieces together her life with a journal she’s left herself—but she’s not sure who she can trust, or whether she’s in danger. And she knows that, when sleep arrives, she will forget all that she’s just learned. Though the main character here doesn’t have a sleep disorder, the threat of impending sleep is ever-present. Whatever she’s learned, whatever danger she believes is in her life—she will lose once more, as sleep descends. Sleep, suddenly, is something very worth fearing.
The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian
In this story, a sleepwalking incident kicks off this tense, twisting mystery. Liana’s mother, Annalee Ahlberg, walks out of their house one night, never to return. There are no clues to her disappearance except for a piece of her clothing stuck in a tree by the river, and a long, documented history of sleepwalking. Narrated by her daughter, Liana, the search for Annalee and the investigation into her disappearance unearths the deep history and dark secrets of the missing—and those left behind.
I Heard that Song Before by Mary Higgins Clark
Kay knows a lot about her husband’s past before their marriage. She knows he was suspected at one time in the disappearance of a young woman, decades earlier. And she knows his first wife drowned in their pool. But what she doesn’t learn until after their marriage is that her husband is a sleepwalker. After witnessing him sleepwalking to the scene of his first wife’s death, she’s no longer sure if she truly knows everything about him. And when the body of a missing woman is found on their property, she sets out to uncover what really happened in the past—and if she knows the person sleeping beside her as well as she believes she does.
The Hours Before Dawn by Celia Fremlin
A lack of sleep—due to her baby who cries through the night, and her two young daughters who wake early—has Louise unfocused and disoriented, even drifting off throughout the day. When she welcomes a new tenant into their home, and her sleep deprivation increases, she finds the line between dream and reality shifting—alongside a building sense of terror. But no one seems to hear her on the fears she has about the new tenant, and her own behavior appears erratic to others. With her increasing paranoia, no one can be sure whether the dangers Louise fears for her family are real or imagined—not even Louise herself.