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Review: “Stay Awake” by Dan Chaon

By Appraisingpages @appraisjngpages

Today I’m reviewing a collection of spooky short stories, Stay Awake by Dan Chaon. This is a book I actually judged purely by its cover. I was perusing the shelves of the closest Barnes & Noble and this was on a “New & Noteworthy Fiction” table and thought the cover was just beautiful.

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Picture from our Instagram. See that crease on the cover? My purse is very cruel to paperbacks!

Here is the synopsis from its Goodreads page:

In these haunting, suspenseful stories, lost, fragile, searching characters wander between ordinary life and a psychological shadowland. They have experienced intense love or loss, grief or loneliness, displacement or disconnection—and find themselves in unexpected, dire, and sometimes unfathomable situations.

A father’s life is upended by his son’s night terrors—and disturbing memories of the first wife and child he abandoned; a foster child receives a call from the past and begins to remember his birth mother, whose actions were unthinkable; a divorced woman experiences her own dark version of “empty-nest syndrome”; a young widower is unnerved by the sudden, inexplicable appearances of messages and notes—on dollar bills, inside a magazine, stapled to the side of a tree; and a college dropout begins to suspect that there’s something off, something sinister, in his late parents’ house.

Dan Chaon’s stories feature scattered families, unfulfilled dreamers, anxious souls. They exist in a twilight realm—in a place by the window late at night when the streets are empty and the world appears to be quiet. But you are up, unable to sleep. So you stay awake.

First of all, I think the premise of this book is so fresh and creative. Sleeping is something still not totally understood and sometimes the twilight disconnect between being awake and asleep can feel so strange. I know this because I’m a very deep sleeper and many mornings are spent with my husband humoring me with my strange unconscious conversations from the night before. Although it takes a lot to scare me I was still interested in starting a book whose goal is to keep me awake. After reading several long novels in a row, some of them all part of the same series, I was also excited to read some short stories. It’s always good to mix it up!

As is expected with a collection of short stories, I had some that were my favorites and ones that fell a little flat for me. Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorites:

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How can that not pique your interest? I loved getting a fresh story with each chapter, yet each was threaded together with the theme of sleeplessness. Its sufferers ranged from a single mom and divorcée, a father running away from his past, a newly widowed single father. I thought the commonality in most of the characters being parents interesting. I do wonder if it was intentional, I don’t know if Dan Chaon is a parent but there is truly nothing like adjusting to the new sleeping cycle you’re forced into as a new parent. I can say that I haven’t slept a full night since June of 2011 before my youngest son was born, and it is strange. Especially with a newborn you usually don’t get more than 2 hours of sleep (if you’re lucky!) and even during your waking daytime hours everything feels as though it’s in a cloudy film. And often, even when your baby does start sleeping a little longer, as a parent you begin to wake even when your child doesn’t to check on him or her.

The best way I can describe the spook in the stories is subtle. It’s a slow burn and buildup of fear, the empty yet deafening silence as you lay awake in bed. There really isn’t a worse feeling, hearing the clock tick in your head, each tick a second of sleep you’re missing out on and will wish for the next morning when your alarm clock goes off and signals a new day that’s ready for you.

With some of the stories the eeriness was a little too subtle, it felt a little flat or perhaps I missed it entirely. This is something I could completely be guilty of myself and is not the fault of Mr. Chaon but I kept waiting for something to happen, a clincher at the end perhaps. And sometimes nothing would come.

I would recommend this book to a fan of subtle horror, a fan of some of Stephen King’s more “out-there” stories. If you need action every second this isn’t for you but this is a great example of well-written and spooky horror.


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