Before it was a novel, The Edge of Sleep by Jake Emmanuel and Willie Block, was one of the best SF podcasts in recent memory. I remember being utterly riveted when I first listened to it, headphones clamped to my ears while I did the housework and followed Dave, Linda and Matteo through an apocalyptic world of sleepless misery. The story had mystery, tension and old-fashioned civilisation-crumbling drama. High production values, fantastic voice acting, and a propulsive plot all combined together for something memorable.
The Edge of Sleep novelisation also adds Jason Gurley to the writer’s credits. One presumes Gurley was brought on board primarily to assist in translating the original podcast into print, with the core plot already having been established in the aforementioned podcast series. However, it is also worth noting that aspects of the plot differ notably between the mediums, something I’ll discuss in more detail later. Unless specifically mentioned as otherwise, the references to the plot will be references to the novelisation.
The Edge of Sleep begins with Dave and Matteo, a pair of nightwatchmen, working a boring graveyard shift. After Dave literally falls asleep on the job, Matteo convinces him they should shirk off to a party, ostensibly to help lovesick Dave reclaim his mojo but more likely so Matteo can have a good time. Matteo, rowdy and irreverent, is a good foil for Dave, who tends toward melancholy and introspection.
In both the podcast and the novel, Dave is cast as the protagonist, while Matteo is probably the strongest supporting character, happy-go-lucky dude who adds moments of levity to what could otherwise be very sombre subject matter.
After speeding off to the party in Matteo’s Camaro, their night begins dramatically going downhill. First, the party is dead. Second, the guy on the couch is dead. Third, when they get to the hospital with a body in the Camaro’s back seat, everyone there is also dead.
Well, almost everyone. There’s a feisty nurse named Linda and she joins Dave and Matteo as they attempt to figure out just what happened during the night, and what they can do to avoid the same fate. A ticking clock ensues, that ticking clock being their own bodies’ desire for sleep, as they race to solve the mystery.
Dave himself, it seems, might hold part of the solution in his own childhood, during which he was plagued by nightmares of an elephant figure. Even as an adult, these childhood memories have haunted him and occasionally caused him to drop into strange, sleepwalking trances. The only problem is, if the answers are to be found in Dave’s dreams, and people die when they fall asleep, it’s not going to be easy.
So, how does the Edge of Sleep novel stack up? Well, I’ve got mixed feelings about the adaptation.
In both the book and the podcast, Dave is cast as the main protagonist, but the novel loses the benefit of Dave’s first-person monologues, which the podcast interjects throughout the episodes. Partly because of this, the podcast feels more tightly welded to Dave’s point-of-view, whereas the novel paints on a broader canvas. This is an effect heightened by the narrative decision to have certain chapters segue over to other, minor point-of-view characters.
On the downside, this dilutes the urgency and immediacy of the action, something crucial to the suspense of the podcast. Another downside, unfortunately, is that some of the better parts of the podcast were left on the cutting room floor.
I gather this was done to give the novel wider appeal, but it saps some of the brutality, urgency and tension of the original podcast. The most notable example is that the human villain from the podcast is completely cut. The Trespasser is integral to a good chunk of the podcast and raises the stakes and tension palpably during the middle section. The part where the Trespasser straps Dave down and prepares to torture him is a good example.
Similarly, the podcast of The Edge of Sleep has a stronger depiction of Dave’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Katie, who also joins the group later on. Early in the story, there is a sense that their relationship was marred by violence that occurred during one of Dave’s dream-fugue states. To create tension, the novel and podcast both use this device of a violent incident in their past that Dave can’t remember, but the podcast utilises it much better and seems less afraid to lean on it for this purpose.
My advice is that if you have to choose whether to try The Edge of Sleep novel or the podcast first, choose the podcast. It contains a lot more tension and is noticeably darker, whereas the novel is a paler rendition of the same story. If you enjoyed the podcast, then the novel will certainly scratch that same itch, and for that reason I do recommend it if you’re a fan, but expect less rather than more of the same. Still enjoyable, but not quite sitting at the same lofty heights.