Did you ever go on a Wikipedia click rampage? It usually happens when you look something up, then you click on a link in that article, then on a link in the linked article and etc. 2 hours later you find yourself reading an article that has absolutely nothing to do with what you started with and no relevance to anything useful whatsoever. But it’s interesting. That happened to me recently when I stumbled onto a description of a rare, hereditary disease which gave me an idea for a story. Here are some notes I jotted down on the subject.
A guy suffering from fatal familial insomnia sets out to unravel a mystery from his past before he succumbs to the disease. Fatal familial insomnia is an incurable genetic disorder which affects ones sleep patterns. From wikipedia:
The age of onset is variable, ranging from 30 to 60, with an average of 50. However the disease tends to prominently occur in later years, primarily following child birth. Death usually occurs between 7 to 36 months from onset. The presentation of the disease varies considerably from person to person, even among patients from within the same family.
The disease has four stages, taking 7 to 18 months to run its course:
- The patient suffers increasing insomnia, resulting in panic attacks and phobias. This stage lasts for about four months.
- Hallucinations and panic attacks become noticeable, continuing for about five months.
- Complete inability to sleep is followed by rapid loss of weight. This lasts for about three months.
- Dementia, turning unresponsive or mute over the course of six months. This is the final progression of the disease, and the patient will subsequently die.
The story would follow the character as his condition worsens during the span of 10-18 months. It would start near the onset of the disease, at which point the hero would start his quest facing sleepless nights, bouts of paranoia, odd phobias and eventually hallucinations. At this point the story could take an oneiric slant blending flashbacks from the past, fictional dream like events and reality. Our character would be slowly loosing the ability to distinguish between past, present reality and hallucination slipping into sort of a waking dream. However the increasingly complex hallucinations would also help to bring him closer to his goal – often representing repressed memories, and revealing new pieces of the puzzle.
This is the area that needs the most work. I really have no concrete ideas here, but I’d want it to be deeply personal, and somewhat disturbing. Our character could for example be adopted, and he sets out to find his biological parents. He has no records, no last name and no information about them. But since the fatal familial insomnia is very rare genetic disease found only in around 28 families worldwide this sort of narrows down his search. After few duds he finds a promising lead. Unfortunately something happened to the family and the trail ends abruptly and our hero is forced to look inward trying to reconstruct his childhood memories basing on old documents, visits to familiar locations, and items from his past.
I don’t really have much more at the moment. Obviously this is the big hook that can make or break the whole narrative. I’d like it to be something dark, sinister and unsettling but I can’t think of anything that would fit here. Can you?
The story would start grounded in reality and then slowly slip towards abstraction. So initially we would explore how insomnia affects our characters personal relationships with his wife/girlfriend, family and friends as well as how it affects his work. Having issues adjusting our hero would set out on an inwards journey of self discovery while his close ones rally around him trying to cope with his condition. Onset of paranoia and irrational phobias would put a severe strain on his closest family – his personal quest conflicting with their attempts to help him.
So we would see the secondary characters try to cope with inevitable death, and their close one growing more distant, disturbed and detached from reality every day. Some would sever the relationship being unable to cope, some would try to interfere in his pointless quest causing conflict. Only our heroes true friends/soul mates would stay till the end.
On the flip side we have this sort of existentialist notion of subjective perception of the world. Our hero at some point looses the ability to distinguish between rational and irrational thought, reality and hallucination. But what is reality? Is my reality the same as your reality? The only way we can figure out what is normal is by negotiation – if we both see a pink elephant, then it must be real. But then again, how would I know I’m not negotiating my reality with yet another hallucination? Perhaps you see the elephant, because your really don’t exist.
How do we assert what is real and what is not when our frame of reference is lost? Our character would be struggling wight these kinds of issues. Which events were real? Which were imagined? Which memories are real, and which ones are fake? And does it really matter in the end?
When I read the description of this disease, this outline just sort of jumped at me. I think there is something here. It would take some skill to actually turn this into a worthwhile story, and it would require careful mixing and rationing out the ideas and themes outlined above. I believe that the concept is rather interesting though. Do you agree? Or is this totally stupid?
Terminal Insomnia by Łukasz Grzegorz Maciak is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at www.terminally-incoherent.com.