The Russian Sleep Experiment is a short-story rehash of an old favourite in a way that the recent movie ‘Cabin in the Woods’ is a rehash of 1981’s The Evil Dead. A lot is added, and something difficult to describe is taken away. In total we receive a fresh look at what was once a simple “spooky copy/paste” that has circled the web for something like 5 years.
The first thing one picks up on is the immense change in tone. No more is the focus on the scientists, the experiment itself, nor the “lurking human meta-evil” supposedly within us all. Instead, one is treated to a day-to-day of struggling war survivors, simple men come soldiers. A long and detailed exploration of a handful of men within a “death camp” or the like paints a dreary, painful and hard life, laced with paranoia, harsh weather and bitter camaraderie.
Only once we have an understanding of these imprisoned souls do we then see tickles of the original text; rumours of evil scientists, and twisted experiments. The story jumps somewhat jarringly into a experimental facility, the logs of the scientists, and the dramatic irony plays out: the reader is aware that the following days will be hellish for these hardened men, and the vast majority of readers will know how the experiment will finish.
Before these scenes play out, the author chooses to let us live within the minds of one of the test subjects, and begins forming clear pictures of social discomfort: the narrator somehow is different, and is capable of giving first hand details that the base-text sorely lacked, simple hints and unnerving insights truly understood only by someone directly undergoing savagely cruel conditions.
It almost seems too soon that the deed is done, the terrifying conclusion is over, and the reader considers the piece done. Scientists are fired, good men are destroyed in a way only wayward experimentation can provide, and bystanders are left to ponder “if I’d ever feel at home again”.
The author was in no way satisfied. What follows is a long, steady, cold incline, from dramatic conclusion to a small but unforgettable crest. An epilogue in the form of one man, a surviving scientist, and his neighbour a kindly woman with two young children. With the entire experiment weighing on his mind, this scientist nurses a bite-wound, and slowly spirals into an odd kind of sympathetic madness, suffering wild and short symptoms at first, and then more subtle and unending tortures, until the story comes to a dismal and vaguely apocalyptic end.
This final chapter took the most effort to consume by this reviewer, the setting and tone and characters all very dark, the text seemingly built from the ground up to depress and warn the reader. Also somewhat wearying was the underlying simplification of the experimental results down to a disease or other such trope. While this at first seemed cheap, continual thematic prods suggested that the ‘disease’ was little more than appearance, and the original threat of unknowable and intimate foreboding was indeed there, pulling the strings.
The Russian Sleep Experiment is a worthy read, particularly to anyone who is familiar with the so called “Orange Soda” horror tale. The author is detailed, ruthlessly cruel to their characters and talented in the always difficult balance between too-vague and scientifically precise. This reviewer would recommend it and looks forward more work from Holly Ice.