Posts Tagged ‘mental hospitals’

I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but it took me about two months to get through the audio book of this novel. Not because of how I was reacting to the book, but COVID-19 has changed my audio-book listening habits in a major way. Which is a pain in the ass when you decide to read more works by writers of color and this particular book and author comes highly recommended. But I finally got through it, so let me tell you about this book I just finished (the audio book of which, by the way, was narrated by the author himself, and he did a great job).

The Devil in Silver follows Pepper, a large man who gets thrown into Northwest at New Hyde Hospital, a mental institution in Queens, New York. Not because of any mental illness, but that doesn’t keep him from being there. And as Pepper gets a crash course in the mental health industry, he also has to contend with a terrifying resident with its own wing of the hospital. A demonic figure, a devil, who seems to enjoy the pain and suffering of other patients. And Pepper finds himself in the unwelcome position of having to face this monster and stop it, lest it hurt him and his new friends in New Hyde Hospital.

Despite the title and the monster mentioned in the second half of the preceding paragraph, the true horror of the story doesn’t come primarily from the devil. It actually comes from the setting: LaValle does a great job of writing about people trapped in an industry that doesn’t always have the well-being of its patients in mind (and quite a few of the characters note this in the story). As someone who has his own share of mental health issues, reading this book, whose author drew on his own experiences with mental illness and mental institutions, made me very much aware of my experience with mental health and the industry, and how much worse it could be things were a little different. I’ve since put a book on the industry on my TBR list, which I hope will further educate me and make me more aware of a segment of society that the rest sometimes wishes to forget exists.

That all being said, the titular devil is scary too. There’s something about a bison-headed monster popping out of the ceiling of a mental hospital, one that enjoys hurting the patients and can manipulate the staff for its own benefit. Just makes the hairs on the back of your neck rise and makes you wonder about what it might be like if a monster such as that existed.

I also really grew to love the characters. Pepper comes off as honest and likable, if impulsive and a bit thick-headed at times. You really got to see him grow throughout the course of the story as he interacts with the other characters and deals with the trials and tribulations set before him. And speaking of the other characters, even the minor ones were given enough development to feel real. Some of my favorites include the Ugandan immigrant Coffee, who really does want someone to listen to what’s happening at the hospital, and the sassy Luchee, a young woman trying to have some semblance of normal given her situation.

If there was anything I didn’t care for, I found the climax to be a bit anticlimactic. I think I get what the author was going for with that ending, but I kind of wanted something more, and I didn’t get it. That, and there are a lot of digressions in the story. Some of these digressions are quite helpful: they help flesh out the world of the story and what the characters are going through. At the same time, there are some that made me scratch my head, like the one from the POV of the rat living on the second floor of the hospital.

But all in all, The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle is both a scary story and a story that hits deep at what it means to be human. And after reading this, I’ll likely read another book by LaValle very soon. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving this one a 4.3. Grab a copy and get ready to see a side of life many would rather forget existed.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. As promised, more posts are on the way, including on my recent trip to South Carolina. Keep your eyes peeled. And until next time, stay safe and pleasant nightmares!

The other day I was daydreaming, brainstorming, and reflecting on a number of subjects (one of the lovely things about me is that my head is in the clouds about half the time). During this particular brainstorming session, I thought up an idea for a novel where half the story is set in an insane asylum. As I wrote the idea down, i thought to myself, “Asylums are great places to set a horror story”.

And that’s when my head exploded with an idea for a blog post. And after the mess was partially cleaned up, I started thinking of all the reasons why someone would want to use an asylum for the setting of a story, especially a horror story. I realized that asylums can add many layers and aspects to a single story in terms of character development, plot points, build-up and suspense, and a variety of other reasons.

I will try to list as many of these aspects and layers as possible in this post without boring you. If I help anyone come up with an idea for a story, then I’m happy to be of service.

Okay, reasons why an asylum is a great location for a story. Here we go:

(The following post will use the terms “asylum” and “mental hosptials” or “mental wards” interchangeably. We apologize for any confusion regarding this flexibility.)

American Horror Story: Asylum’s own Briarcliff Manor. You go in…but you never come out.

1. It’s closed off to the outside world. Asylums and mental hospitals–heck, even menal wards–are like their own little words. No one can get out without express permission from someone in power or without a daring escape plan involving car chases, guns, and possibly a hidden underground tunnel from when the asylum was a TB hospital. Within the hospital itself, there is a set life that cannot be interrupted by outside forces. It’s a little claustrophobic, if you think about it. Especially when it’s a ward that occupies only one-fifth of a hospital floor.
And the intimacy of such a space–everyone’s problems, neuroses, delusions, paranoias–are apparent in such a small space. The amount of openness and lack of privacy can increase the sense of claustrophobia, almost filling up the area of the asylum with its glaring lack of privacy. Talk about terrifying!

2. Everybody who’s there has something. I hesitate to use the words “crazy” or “insane”, because labels can be damaging. But you get the idea. Everyone put in an asylum has some sort of problem that needs addressing through a combination of drugs and talk-therapy.  It can be difficult to live in such an environment, whether or not you actually are suffering from a mental illness (both have been known to happen). And if weird stuff like demons or magic or whatever starts appearing around you, you can’t be sure if you’re really seeing what you’re seeing, if this is a result of your own mental illness, or if you’re being influenced by someone else’s delusions. It can get pretty freaky, which adds to the terror and mystery.

3. The people in authority aren’t always good or wise. This is true on many points. Sometimes guards and orderlies can be overly rough with patients or take certain liberties with them that can be downright illegal. Doctors may believe that someone is sick when they are not (there have been studies that show that if a normal person went into an asylum complaining of voices, they would be instantly committed and nothing they could do to convince people they were sane afterwards worked, passed off as stubbornness or as a result of the illness). And there have been cases when doctors, management, and owners of asylums have deliberately mistreated patients in order to make the most money from the states and the family of those committed. It’s very sick, but unfortunately all these and more have been known to happen.

The voices in your head. Do they confuse you…or help you?

4. Underfunding can make things difficult. There have been state hospitals for the mentally ill and for those with physical and mental disabilities in the past and today that, due to underfunding, have seriously hurt the people those facilities are trying to protect. There was a hospital in Pennsylvania for the mentally and physically disabled, where they had maybe two nurses for two hundred patients, and believe me there was a lot more patients than that. Because the nurses, bless them for the work they did and with so little pay or help or compensation, were so busy cleaning and getting food to these patients, they never had the time to help some of the younger patients with basic activities, such as learning how to walk. Instead, some of them just stayed in bed 24/7, until they died or became adults.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! Imagine how those sorts of problems could shape someone forced to live or work in such a place.

5. Perfect place to do a little reflection. If you want to get your head shrunk at an asylum, then by all means do so. Despite the problems with asylums then and now, they are founded with the purpose to help people sort their problems. I’m pretty sure the movie It’s Kind of a Funny Story was about a kid who used a mental ward to help sort through his problems and combat his depression. Who’s to say your character can’t do the same while s/he has been committed? Surely they could use a little character development while they’re locked up with all the time in the world to examine their minds.

That’s really all I have at this point. If I think of any others, I’ll do a second post. Until then, happy brainstorming. Don’t come up with anything that might cause a mess later.