It’s like an Americana re-telling of the Minotaur in his labyrinth. Now the Minotaur has the head of a Buffalo, and the labyrinth is a crumbling mental health institution.
Being the slow-on-the-uptake kinda guy that I am, it took me until about halfway through Victor LaValle’s horror-drama The Devil in Silver (2013) to realise that it’s one of those location-as-metaphor books, wherein the claustrophobic, dilapidated corridors of its New York mental health institution setting (the narrative in fact never exits this one building), functions as a microcosm for 21st Century socio-political America. By which I don’t mean that the novel’s overarching message is “America is like a mental ward”, rather, LaVelle uses this setting to both illustrate and critique the US’s wider and frequently shameful track record with various social issues: mental health, race, immigration, old age, sexuality, disability and poverty. The events that take place in the mental institution, then, are representationally characteristic of what happens in American on a larger scale. So we know that when a riot breaks out and the cops storm in – only to shoot the first black person they encounter – LaValle is taking on the wider problem of institutionalised (pun quasi-intended) racism, and so on.
But it’s not all as heavy handed as that.
The novel opens when “Pepper” – our working class, uneducated, loving but short-tempered protagonist – is sanctioned into a psychiatric ward by a group of police officers who’re too lazy to go through the bureaucratic rigmarole of processing him at the station: Pepper has committed an assault, and by the time he’s released back into police custody after the weekend, he’ll be somebody else’s problem. (The police are a particularly frequent target of the writer’s needle-sharp ire). Pepper may be ineloquent and unable to control his temper, but he’s not crazy (though this is no impediment to the overwhelmingly patronising treatment he receives from the hospital’s orderlies). Once inside, Pepper befriends a rag-tag group of psychiatric patients, ranging from schizophrenics to manic depressives, and together they hatch a plot to kill the “Devil”, a nightmarish creature with the body of an old man and the head of a giant buffalo who stalks the ward at night, occasionally murdering patients (more on this later).
The characterisation of these patients is highly sympathetic: this to simultaneously de-stigmatise the conditions from which they suffer, and to critique the US health system’s approach to such people. Several of the characters are also minorities, which allows LaValle to tackle such auxiliary issues as racism, ableism, xenophobia (etc.), and the places where these problems intersect with mental health difficulties. But this isn’t to say that the characters are nothing but proxies for whichever social/mental health issue they represent, and if anything LaValle should be praised for his efforts to avoid the stereotypes so often so offensively associated with the fictional presentation of mental health patients. Of particular note thereby are “Coffee”, an African with conspiracy obsessions, and Sue, a middle-aged Chinese asylum seeker whose story is equal parts horrifying and heart-breaking: a much stronger character study than any that appeared in ether of LaValle’s previous novels.
The moral course of the book is a somewhat predictable one: the patients, initially strange, ambiguous characters, are slowly revealed to have deeper hearts and brighter eyes and greater value than we (and Pepper) may at first believe. If you’re the sort of person who’d pick up this book in the first place, then The Devil in Silver probably won’t challenge any of your prejudices, but the treatment of its characters and the dismissive manner in which they’re hidden away (the hospital in question is oh-so-knowingly named “New Hyde”) is nonetheless shocking. Patients are (illegally) restrained in their beds for days on end, sedated so heavily that weeks pass without their knowledge, made to live in filthy clothing, and generally thrown about like ragdolls by the orderlies, to whom consent seems to be an alien concept. This makes for some distressing (and potentially triggering) reading, which is augmented when the text is suddenly (and frequently, and brilliantly) interrupted by newspaper clippings detailing some failure of the state to provide adequate care for those suffering from mental health disorders, addictions and other vulnerabilities.
What I’ve described thus far could almost sound like a work of realist literary fiction, but that’s merely a trick of the light: there’s a tension at play between the hyperreal (the patients’ emotional lives, the real-world setting, the social justice issues), and the fantastic (the monster that stalks the wards), with much of the book functioning in a hinterland between these two spaces. Stylistically the book is decidedly genred; in its form, content and the tropes it deploys, The Devil in Silver reads as a horror novel. And like so much horror, the impetus for narrative action is the setting, which is explored via the horror-fictional device of an ingénue outsider being unwittingly thrust into a strange and dangerous situation from which he has to escape. Similarly, the claustrophobic hallways and the “Devil” that stalks them are evocative of more traditional haunted house mysteries. The gore, the preoccupation with the body, and the tangible physicality of the buffalo-headed demon likewise take cues from the so-called New Weird horror sub-genre.
And yet (and yet…) while The Devil in Silver is decidedly horror-fictional – and would seem to self-announce as such – to call it decidedly ‘horror fiction’ feels somewhat to short-change it, if not to miss the point entirely. For every horror trope that the reader encounters (the gore, the slow-build of tension before the violent cathartic release, the stylistic focus on atmosphere and the deliberately estranging setting), there are several others that LaValle sub(/in-)verts. The most prominent of these is the characterology, particularly the sympathetic portrayal of the hospital’s patients. It reads like horror fiction, and there are mental health patients involved, but where we might expect knife-wielding, straight-jacketed crazies running amok in blood-stained gowns, we instead find a pair of old women in what’s obviously an undeclared lesbian relationship; a self-harming teenage girl tragically too-aware of the life she’s missing, and a lonely man from a fractured, messed-up family.
But why filter this realism through the lens of horror fiction? Well, in part, The Devil in Silver is an attempt to liberate horror from its own appalling track-record of presenting the mentally ill as, variously: demonically possessed, pathologically violent, physically deformed, criminally insane etc. The tropes of horror fiction give LaValle access to signifiers which, when flipped, expose the unpleasant, often unspoken truths of his subject. For example, a superficial reading might conclude that the “monster” of this horror is the buffalo-headed-man-thing that haunts the ward, and on a surface level this appears to be the case. But what’s really going on is a kind of inversion of the monstrous that results in the demon and the patients becoming, ultimately, victims at the hands of the fair-faced monsters of a negligent care system, inadequate funding and a stigmatising media. If you want to be particularly twee about it, you could argue that the buffalo demon is a metaphor for the harmful and false public perception of the mentally ill as dangerous, ugly, frightenting people.
Elsewhere a rat (another standard trope of horror fiction that comes with its own pre-attendant signifiers (disease, decay, general uncleanliness)) is coupled with the post-modern device of an anthropomorphic internal monologue, through which LaValle describes the history of the now- decaying mental health institution. Sure this rat is a more cutesy horror inversion than the monster-as-victim (a rat – so often one of faceless millions – here individualised), but it serves a narrative purpose nonetheless. Not only does the rat’s confessional de-fang and personify the setting, turning it from a place of unknowableness and horror into something deeply tragic with a material past, it simultaneously acts as a middle-finger to horror fiction’s impolitic history of exploiting and misrepresenting mental health facilities as places of terror and strangeness.
So if horror’s mandate is to shock, disturb and, well, horrify, then The Devil in Silver definitely succeeds: but not in terms of horror as a mappable genre; the word “horror” is appropriate here in its literal gloss: more like how the media would use the word, than a bookshop. The horror is explicit in the novel’s exposé of the uncaring, abusive and oftentimes illegal treatment of mental health patients, and the demonising manner in which they’re frequently portrayed. The Devil in Silver is, as we’re coming to expect from Victor LaValle, a powerful, imaginative, big-hearted novel that simultaneously celebrates and challenges the precepts of traditional genre fiction, and much like Big Machine, the book’s resounding achievement is a convergence of the fantastically genred with the socially relevant.