Charlie Huston is quickly proving to be a capable jack of all trades when it comes to genre writing. As an incredible prose-stylist, he has created some of this decade's most memorable fiction, yet he is criminally underrated. His sentences are terse, but full of information that builds the world his characters inhabit. Short, to the point, they are sometimes more like bullet-points, and they come at the reader in a rapid-fire staccato that is instantly engaging. His crime novels prove he will likely, one day, be labeled a worthy successor to the likes of Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy. His Joe Pitt Casebook series, about a sort-of-private investigator who happens to be a vampire, prove that he is capable of tackling the more esoteric aspects of genre fiction in a more than capable manner. His latest, Sleepless, further solidifies all of these presumptions about just how damn talented Huston really is. With an alt-history twist, Huston presents an apocalyptic vision of present-day Los Angeles. A few years ago, a strain of Fatal Familial Insomnia mutated and caused an outbreak that infected at least ten percent of the population. The new strain, SLP, prevents the afflicted from sleeping and slowly kills them over the course of a year or more. Officer Parker Haas is working undercover as a drug dealer to find and halt the illegal sale of "Dreamer," a pharmaceutical that can help ease the pain and damage SLP causes. His assignment puts him in the cross-hairs of an assassin named Jasper, who was hired by a Japanese crime-lord, Lady Chizu, to recover a missing travel drive that has made its way into Haas's possession. In addition to the demands of his job, Haas is struggling to raise a newborn with his SLP-infected wife, Rosie. Because of her disease, Rosie has trouble maintaining a grip on time, oftentimes slipping into the past and forgetting the present. She spends much of her time playing a massive multi-player online game called Chasm Tide. All of this is set against a background populated by military check-points dotting the city, suicide bombers, conspiracy theories, random acts of violence and kindness, and the zombie-like denizens who roam the streets like the living dead.
Huston populates his apocalyptic vision with fully realized characters, each with their own history and subtleties. His writing style and ear for dialogue consistently make his cast sound and feel like authentic people; each have their own quirks and mannerisms, they repeat themselves, they start and stop, leaving sentences half-spoken. You can feel their isolation and heartbreak as they struggled to cope with a rapidly changing world, seeking to find their place in society as they search for a stabilizing influence to anchor themselves. His vision of this speculative LA is gritty and real, as is the growth of fringe cultures, like MMORPGs, and their place in a new world. A disease like SLP would have a drastic impact on society, and Huston is no slouch when it comes to examining them. It makes perfect sense that many of the young afflicted would turn to online communities and gaming in order to occupy their sleepless hours, or that they would find employment as extras in zombie movies. There is never a false note as Huston explores the consequences of SLP affliction, or the radical way in which it changes not only the infected, but those around them.
While entertaining and engrossing, Sleepless is also a bit of a challenging read at first. Presented in shifting view-points, Huston alternates between third-person narration to detail Parker's story, but also presents a first-person account told by Parker as he records his thoughts in a journal and a first-person point of view for Jasper. It's common for both of these first-person accounts to abut each other, so readers will have to pay attention. Thankfully, the voices between Parker and Jasper are distinct, and Huston makes things a bit easier by left-justifying Parker's first-person sections.
Huston is a rising star with a terrific body of work that showcases his talents in the pulp tradition, which only grows stronger with each successive entry. His infusion of the crime and speculative genres help to push him into a whole new realm as he maintains a high level of authenticity, firmly grounding the wilder-sounding aspects of his plots in reality. By basing the SLP prion off a real-world disease, Huston credibly expands his ideas with terrific scientific reasoning and sound research that fleshes out this dangerous new world of insomniacs and living nightmares. Coupled with a strong grasp on character development and naturalistic dialogue, the reader is easily absorbed into the story, sharing in the process of discovery with an eclectic, memorable cast of characters. A stand-alone novel, Sleepless is the prefect introduction to Huston's work.