For genre geeks such as myself, one of the most exciting developments in 21st-century fiction is the embrace of sci-fi, fantasy and horror by so-called “literary” authors. Karen Thompson Walker epitomized this elevating trend in her first genre-bending debut novel, The Age of Miracles (2012). Walker takes on the horror genre with The Dreamers, the tale of an inexplicable sleeping sickness that consumes an entire college town, beginning with a freshman dorm.
Soon after the first student is stricken, several of her classmates also fall prey to the plague, including a young woman whose social awkwardness takes on fatal significance, and another who has just had sex for the first time and is now pregnant. The development of new life in her womb becomes a crucial theme throughout the novel, an affirmation of vitality in stark contrast to the mother’s dreadful slumber.
As the disease spreads beyond campus, panic rises. The panorama of these afflictions exposes a range of memorable characters. There are no heroes. In fact, the foolishness of “heroism” is diagnosed with devastating impact. There are many different ways that Walker’s victims succumb to the mysterious sleep, while others attempt to cope with their loved ones’ collapse. Worst of all, some sleepers come out of their uncanny dream state permanently unhinged. In every case, a basic principle of human nature unfolds: A person realizes their truest self when confronted with a crisis of mortality.
The Dreamers does more than satisfy both the horror geek and the literary nerd. With clinical precision and psychological depth, Walker delivers a vivid embodiment of our ongoing national anxiety.