In Douglas Thompson’s latest short story collection, the writer explores a surreal and hypnotic territory in a series of 31 stories. A recurring theme weaves through his tales from whence the collection derives both its strength and its title – the hazy subconscious realms of sleep. It is as though Thompson has appealed to the ancient god Neptune directly for inspiration, and indeed, he plumbs the depths, bringing back impressions of every day life which dove tail into alternate universes – such as “The Bicycle”, “Underpass”, and “Sunday Relatives” among others, and sentient landscapes as detailed in “Stations Are How Towns Dream”, “On Garnet Hill”, and the fascinating “The Topography of City Parks,” (co-written with Allen Ashley) in which a man charts the patterns of autumn leaves.
Thompson has no small gift of elevating those mundane moments into disorienting and hyper-real snapshots, such as the whirling narrative of “Central Station,” and a suicide attempt reeled back at the last minute in “Fallen Woman”, related in the second person voice to great affect. Thompson experiments with style and aims for the literary, roundly smacking it on the nose when the mood takes him, as it does in “The Flowers of Uncertainty,” which details the side-slipping narrative of a writer entangled with an assistant/lover who sabotages his life’s work, or the smartly bizarre “The Pleasures of Television” in which people no longer satisfy themselves with merely watching the tube — they embody it, broadcasting images from their bellies.
In addition to these particular highlighted selections, one begins to understand the overarching theme in stories like that of the collection’s title, “The Sleep Corporation” and in particular, the sinister and riveting “Hypnostra”, which does double duty as dark fiction and as near satirical commentary on the maniacal optimism of the self-help industry via a convention whose attendees discover that not only can they take their human potential to new, superhuman levels, but need not be weighed down by the same pesky morals as anyone else, either. Through it, Thompson gives definition to the modern day insecurities that plague the west in its quest for self-improvement. But the Sleep Corporation running the show is slippery – just when you think you have them figured out, reality itself seems up for contention.
Themes of water – and the fluidity of reality – make their appearances so often its hard not to see it everywhere within the collection as one starts looking. The Sleep Corporation makes for a fascinating and riveting read of intelligent and deeply layered fiction, and will most likely be enjoyed by readers who appreciate their fantastic crossed with darkness.
The Sleep Corporation by Douglas Thompson is published by The Exaggerated Press.