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Publisher: Spiegel & Grau$11.25The Devil in Silver (Audio Compact Disc - Unabridged)
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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-07-02
- Reviewer: Staff
Reviewed by Benjamin Percy. New Hyde hospital—a cash-strapped mental institution in Queens—is the setting of Victor LaValle’s excellent third novel. Think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets Dante’s Inferno. LaValle anticipates the inevitable comparison to Kesey and tips his hat early on, when a patient says that though Kesey’s novel takes place in a mental hospital, “it isn’t about mentally ill people.” In the same manner, LaValle makes it unclear who is crazy and who isn’t; the overlapping realities of the doctors, nurses, and patients really aren’t so different. The omniscient narrator chases many perspectives through the fluorescent-lit corridors of New Hyde—even a rat’s—but the central character is Pepper, a big-shouldered, working-class troublemaker who ends up institutionalized simply because it means less paperwork for the police. Pepper is led to believe he will face a judge after 72 hours, but bad luck and bad decisions keep him at New Hyde—always medicated, sometimes restrained to his bed so long the small of his back “stopped feeling like a curled fist a day ago and now was just a pocket of cold fire burning through his waist.” And you never want to end up restrained at New Hyde. Because the Devil is on the prowl. He is housed—or so the patients believe—behind a silver door at the end of an empty hallway. At night he visits his neighbors. His heels clop “like horseshoes on cobblestones.” He has the body of a frail old man, but the head of a bison, with a “deep, wet pit” of a mouth and “dead white eyes.” Pepper’s roommate—a malt ball-headed man named Coffee who spends most of his time trying to phone the president—believes, “The food makes us fat. The drugs make us slow. We’re cattle. Food. For it.” The novel is genuinely unsettling—as the devil lowers himself from the ceiling, as the doctors and nurses abuse the patients, as a woman commits suicide by swallowing a bed sheet so deeply that its tip is stained yellow with bile—but it is also very funny. LaValle has a wicked sense of humor, and the gags often come as a relief, such as when an institutionalized teenage girl in baby-blue Nikes takes down a big man with her “crazy strength” or a monstrous rat crashes through a ceiling tile, snatches a box of Cocoa Puffs, and scampers through a gauntlet of nurses stomping their feet and swinging brooms. In a novel suffused with the tragic and sinister, humor is necessary, modulating emotion, keeping us off guard. But on occasion, LaValle gets too silly and cute. The hospital administration, always cutting corners, repurposes the building “like a motherfucker.” And as Pepper sneaks his lover into his room, the narrator says, “ladies and gentlemen, despite the perceived differences between them and you, the mentally ill like jooking, too!” Moments like these make the tone feel unstable, and the moments of genuine terror harder to take seriously.But these are small gripes. The novel, expertly written, will leave you wondering about its many memorable characters and lingering over questions about fear, horror, madness, suffering, friendship, and love. Benjamin Percy is the author of the novels Red Moon (forthcoming from Grand Central) and The Wilding, as well as two books of short stories. His honors include the Whiting Writers’ Award, and inclusion in Best American Short Stories and Best American Comics.
Zombies, demons, werewolves and fairy tales
The news industry has always threatened to doom horror fiction to redundancy. How can any writer outdo the nightmare reality of the "developing stories" on CNN? Fortunately, masters of the genre don't even try. Instead, they play riffs on the "standards" of horror, and a different kind of news emerges. It's not what you tell that matters, it's how you tell it. That's what horror fans call a "developing story."
David Wong (a pseudonym) is the champion of slackers and couch potatoes everywhere. In This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It, Wong’s hilarious fictive self muddles through a series of epic disasters unleashed by his own slacking. Just as well: Only a full-throttle global apocalypse could relieve Wong’s boredom and absolute societal redundancy. You know you’re in for it when the therapist assigned to “cure” you by the police (because you’ve persuaded them you’re a borderline psychopath) is creepier by far than any of the invisible spiders-who-turn-people-into-zombies which only you and your slacker friend John can see. True to his schlemiel essence, Wong hardly has to lift a finger for all bloody hell to break loose. When it does, he’s invariably caught somewhere between the feelings of “Oh, sh—!” and “Bring it on, man!” As in his first novel John Dies at the End, Wong makes no bones (and there are plenty of ‘em, poking out of bleeding flesh) about annoying every authority figure in sight, including grammar fascists like me. With sublime contempt for literary decorum, Wong not only uses “lay” when he should use “lie”; he then conjugates the error throughout with aplomb. This book is full of slacking: seriously, dude, lay down on the couch and read it.
Victor LaValle’s The Devil in Silver feels like a grand symphonic variation on Ken Kesey’s horrific “chamber music” in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. LaValle makes explicit his tribute to that great novel. At one point, his hapless hero Pepper, an inadvertent mental-ward inmate, imagines himself as Kesey’s “Chief,” busting out of the place by tossing a heavy object through the window. Nothing could surpass the horror of Kesey’s finale, so LaValle gives the reader something else to worry about besides a lobotomy: the possibility that the inmates are menaced by a devil from Hell at loose in the ward. In The Devil in Silver, as in every worthy horror story, the threat of the supernatural plays second fiddle to a humane gallery of lovable characters in the ward, all of whom might just be crazier than we are. Pepper’s obvious sanity (like McMurphy’s in Cuckoo’s Nest) exposes the real horror: the insanity of the institution itself.
The last two novels derive their superior quality from a subtle infusion of 20th-century history, the horrors of which run like a dark conscience through both narratives. With Breed, mainstream author Scott Spencer changes his name to Chase Novak and bursts out fully armed as a knight of horror, dubbed by none other than Stephen King in the cover blurb. King is justified in his enthusiasm for Breed: It’s hard to imagine a more twisted or timely riff on the theme of lycanthropy, whereby the monsters must fend off a desire to devour their own children. Best of all, the novel serves up a vivid allegory on the malaise and corruption of formerly Communist countries in Eastern Europe. Novak may not be doing the tourist trade of Slovenia any good, but he does a shattered world of good for both the tragic history of the Soviet bloc and the geographic legacy of the horror novel.
There is just one word potent enough to describe Stefan Kiesbye’s Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone: sublime. The notion of the “sublime”—whatever exceeds our understanding or violates the dictates of our senses, inspiring both terror and wonder—nurtured the poetry of Schiller, the music of Beethoven and (most pertinent here) the bloodthirsty tales of the Brothers Grimm. Born and raised in Germany, Kiesbye digs deep into the sublime vein of his homeland’s literary tradition and comes up with horrific gold. But Kiesbye benefits too from the literature of his adopted United States: The multiple narrative voices of Faulkner work like a dark charm, as four children from a German village bear witness to the fundamental evil of the place, and to their own chilling soullessness. The ongoing rumors of a witch or demon preying upon the village can’t stand up to the comprehensive horror of what transpired nearby, in the barracks, in the crematoria, behind the barbed wire, under the Third Reich. There is no greater horror than this: the sins of the fathers visited upon the children, beyond any hope of redemption.