From tossing and turning to night terrors, there’s a lot that can go wrong after your head hits the pillow. Here in America, sleep sufferers are in good company: A new study reports that some 9 million of us lean on sleep aids to catch our zzz’s. In our favorite books, too, there’s no shortage of characters with strange sleeping habits. Here are some of the all-time greatest insomniacs, dreamers and night owls in literature.
1. The Insomniacs
Depending on who you are, insomnia—the inability to fall asleep—can be a good thing or a bad one. If you’re in the business of fighting bad guys, it can come in handy. Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t sleep until he closed his cases—a nice trait in a detective, frankly. For Ralph Roberts, the protagonist of Stephen King’s aptly titled novel, “Insomnia,” sleeplessness was a torment—until he learns it’s a tool that’s been induced in him to help him fight a dark and powerful overlord called the Crimson King. Once Ralph knows the score, he’s down with skimping on sleep. After all, defeating pesky immortals takes time—and insomniacs have plenty of it.
2. The Narcoleptics
These guys fall asleep at odd times, unable to control their bodies’ impulses to randomly drift off. In Charles Dickens’s classic novel, “The Pickwick Papers,” the supporting character Fat Boy is constantly nodding off—a condition related to his obesity. (In fact, in medicine, obesity hyperventilation syndrome—a sleep-disordered breathing condition—is also called “Pickwickian syndrome.”) When she starts to snooze, Sarah, a narcoleptic character in novelist Jonathan Coe’s “The House of Sleep,” suffers from intensely vivid dreams. And in Paul Tremblay’s mystery novel “The Little Sleep,” Detective Mark Genevich has a similar problem—which, if we’re using Sherlock as the foil, can’t bode well, given his chosen profession. No one wants a drowsy detective.
3. The Oversleepers
Imagine, after a couple centuries of steady snoozing, how rested and ready for adventure you’d feel? That’s sort of the premise of H.G. Wells’s classic dystopian novel, “The Sleeper Awakes,” about a guy who comes to after 203 years in bed (take that, Rip Van Winkle!) to realize that he’s now a rich and powerful man—but, also, that the modern world is an awfully messed-up place. Graham, Wells’s protagonist, doesn’t seem to know how he managed to nod off for so long. Conversely, in Haruki Murakami’s “After Dark,” Eri—the beautiful sister of the book’s heroine, Mari—plunges into a depression, retreats to bed and mysteriously falls asleep for about two months. It’s a plot that’s kinda weird, kinda twisted, and thoroughly Murakami.
4. The Night Owls
There are your garden-variety nightcrawlers—vampires, cat burglars and the like—and then there’s the unhinged, unnamed “everyman” narrator from Chuck Palahniuk’s bestselling novel, “Fight Club.” This guy’s had it with his white-collar job; he needs an outlet, so he forms the nighttime club with a pal, Tyler, to burn up some of that leftover energy. Since we’re making this list, it also bears mentioning that lots of superheroes do their best work after dark. After all, there’s a reason they call Batman—who’ll soon be played by Ben Affleck (cue uproar) on the big screen—the Dark Knight.
5. The Sleepwalkers
Shakespeare’s fearsome villain Lady Macbeth may talk the talk when she coolly tells her dithering husband to “screw your courage to the sticking-place,” but she can’t walk the walk, as it were. After Macbeth murders Duncan, it’s his wife who’s found sleepwalking through the castle, rubbing her hands raw against invisible blood and moaning, “Out, damned spot!” While guilt induces Lady Macbeth’s somnambulism, the kids in K.A. Applegate’s “Everworld” series have no idea why they fall asleep in their world and wake up in the Norse-inspired Everworld—only to doze off in Everworld and arrive back home. But boy, are their legs—and psyches—tired.
6. The Weird Dreamers
With Edward Cullen watching her sleep, it’s no wonder that the “Twilight” series’ poor Bella Swan has the creepiest, bloodiest, most sensual dreams. Even worse for her, they often come true, as in the case of the vampire fetus that tries to rip her apart. She could have used a visit from Dream, the lord of dreams in Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman.” However, readers learn as the series goes on that Dream’s interference can make things worse: After he breaks free from the magician who has him imprisoned for decades—cursing countless people with crippling insomnia—Dream punishes his captor with eternal nightmares.
7. The Pill Poppers
In “Valley of the Dolls,” a 1966 novel about a trio of beautiful and ambitious actresses and models, success comes at the price of good sleep. Two of the friends, Jennifer and Anne, deal with the stress of their lives by taking slumber-inducing barbiturates, while the other, Neely, goes the other route, keeping herself awake with uppers (“dolls”) until she spirals into a state of insomniac psychosis. Author Jacqueline Susann may have drawn her inspiration from another female protagonist who tries to manage her high-society anxiety with meds: Lily Bart, of Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth.” The only difference is that in Bart’s time (the early 1900s), the medication comes in the form of drops, which makes it hard to distinguish between a dose that’ll send you into a heavenly sleep and a dose that’ll just send you to heaven.
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