F.R. Tallis is an English clinical psychologist and novelist who, in recent years, has published an excellent series about a crime-solving psychiatrist in the glittering Vienna of the early 20th century. His new novel, “The Sleep Room,” is a departure from that, and not only because it’s set in 1950s England. Tallis’s publisher calls the novel “a brilliant reinvention of the ghost story.” I won’t dispute that, being largely ignorant of ghost stories that don’t involve Casper, but will report that I found the novel fascinating.
Reading it, I kept recalling movies from my youth that invariably began with a young man and woman approaching a gloomy old house, or perhaps a castle in Transylvania, where alarming, ever-worsening events would transpire — creaking doors, organ music, sinister servants, fiendish laughter — until even we 12-year-olds were screaming, “Get out of there!” as the innocents stumbled toward some horrid fate. Tallis writes at a more sophisticated level than that, but there are moments in “The Sleep Room” when even a reader of stout heart and mature years will be pleading with his hero to flee the nightmare that surrounds him.
At the outset, James Richardson, a young doctor, is interviewed by Dr. Hugh Maitland, “the most influential psychiatrist of his generation,” who hires him to live and work at his hospital, Wyldehope Hall, in rural Suffolk. Arriving in the dead of night, Richardson finds the hospital “situated on a bleak heath.” He is greeted by the pounding of the North Sea; the hospital’s caretaker, “a big man with a pockmarked face and bulbous features”; and a dimly lit vestibule that features a stag’s head “with glassy black eyes.” The organ music we must supply ourselves.
He is soon introduced to the Sleep Room, where six women in white gowns, with wires protruding from their scalps, are kept in a drugged sleep for 21 hours a day, often for months at a time, to be studied by Richardson and Maitland. Maitland scorns Freudians and their talk therapy (“couch merchants,” he calls them) but believes that this narcosis, or deep-sleep therapy, supplemented by electroshock treatments, can cure mental disorders. (This therapy, the author says in an afterword, was practiced in the 1950s but then fell out of favor.)
Other patients in the hospital are confined in locked wards and heavily drugged to deal with their various forms of psychosis and depression. Richardson becomes increasingly troubled by the treatments inflicted upon these unfortunates. When he learns that Maitland has contacts at the CIA, he wonders if the sleeping women might be guinea pigs in a mind-control experiment.
Things look up when an attractive nurse starts slipping into Richardson’s room at night, but by day, he is increasingly alarmed by mysterious events at the hospital. A pen rolls off a flat desk. A missing ring is found where it should not be. Unseen beings go bump in the night. Soon he is unnerved by “the leaping shadows, slamming doors and ghostly apparitions. All of these things seemed to belong to another world, a world of fevered dreams and lunacy.” He begins to fear there may be ghosts abroad in Wyldehope Hall, but he soldiers on, even after two terrible deaths, because he thinks his work with the celebrated Dr. Maitland can make his career.
Eventually, all hell breaks loose, and we and Richardson are desperate to know just who or what is causing these inexplicable, perhaps evil, outbursts. The increasingly sinister Maitland? The brooding caretaker? The creepy head nurse, Sister Jenkins? A vengeful inmate? Or might there truly be poltergeists at large? We readers may entertain yet another possibility: that young Dr. Richardson may be an unreliable narrator. Who knows what perverse tricks a diabolical author might have up his sleeve?
The solution to this puzzle, when it comes, is ingenious and entirely satisfactory. I prefer Tallis’s Vienna novels — “Fatal Lies,” “A Death in Vienna” and “Vienna Blood” — but he has crafted a skillful exercise in neo-Gothic horror. If you’d like to spend some time in a fictional madhouse — as opposed to a nonfictional madhouse wherein strange beings conspire to bring down the government — “The Sleep Room” might provide welcome relief.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
THE SLEEP ROOM
By F. R. Tallis
Pegasus Crime. 384 pp. $25.95