The Devil in Silver – Victor LaValle

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Big Machine – Victor Lavalle

On the Venn diagram of the New Weird, Victor Lavalle’s Big Machine sits round about where the circles of Michael Cisco and Neil Gaiman overlap those of Thomas Ligotti, Haruki Murakami and even, maybe, Stephen King. Perhaps.  That’s not to say Lavalle doesn’t bring his own keg to the party (and New Weird is nothing if not a party), but readers whose boots are already used to the outlandish soil of Weird should find themselves treading relatively familiar ground here.  Furthermore, Lavalle’s latent preoccupation with contemporary “issues” (addiction, terrorism, racism, religious hysteria, and the ennui of the modern workaday) offers a good way-in for readers more familiar with so-called Literary or Realist Fiction, to which Lavalle’s stylistic choices (first person narrative, uncannily poetic reminiscences of early childhood, constantly informative biographical sub clauses that’re kinda out-of-place and un-realistic in said first-person narrative etc.) also attest. Anyway, that’s quite enough over-worked metaphors for an opening paragraph; my point being: hurrah, we’re all invited.

Not that you’d know it from the book’s design.  I liked the non-representational blood red swirly cover art that functions as aesthetic call-back to the novel’s trippy(/druggy) themes and graphically violent content; but the hyperbolic endorsements from Mos Def and Vanity Fair, the utterly nonsensical (and non-applicable) blurby references to the X-Men and the wannabe-candid-but-is-in-fact-obviously-posed off-centre b&w author snapshot suggest a hipster target audience perhaps more shallow and transient than Big Machine deserves, which is a shame, because it’s a good book; rampant with a wry and self-aware wit so often lacking in Realist fiction, but also open to the supernatural vagaries,  non-standard plotting and fearless engagement with unanswerable questions that’s such a hallmark of the Weird.  Just try your best to ignore the embarrassingly fawning and cringeworthy author interview with which somebody’s deigned to chunk-out the back of the novel.

In brief: Ricky Rice is an American, middle-aged, (almost)ex-junky janitor and recusant suicide cult survivor recruited by a band of interventionist clairvoyant detectives who’re able to tap into fate or determinism or something via an arduous process of reading newspaper clippings while searching their feelings.  Bear with me, it’s not as naff as it sounds.  The group’s M.O. is strikingly religious, with a visually cliché but nonetheless metaphorically loaded induction ceremony comprising a long walk through a darkened room towards the voice of the de facto leader.  A twee if over-wrought creation myth combines with a quasi-messianic figure to create what is essentially a post-slavery spiritualism for black Americans.  Ricky’s understandably weary caution in the face of this has origins in his past – played out through lengthy flash-back chapters (a highlight of the book) – ; he was born into a cult founded by his three aunts who re-appropriated Judeo-Christian mythologies and re-cast the major players as American forefathers.  In both cases, the significant religious preoccupation is in propagating an expressly American piety distinct from the Old World origins of all the major religions and grounded in American history.  If these groups offer moral sanctuary for those disenchanted with the alterity of the (for want of a better word) classic religions, it also exposes Lavalle’s philosophy of America as very much still a frontier nation – young and searching for itself – America as engaged in self-creation is a thematic interest reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy or even Philip Roth.

Far from being an out-right fantasy of religion or world-building experimentation, however, Big Machine’s primary focus is an Infinite Jest-esque exploration of addiction and its attendant losses and pain.  As such, it’s down to the caprice of the individual reader whether or not encounters with dark angels, parasitic male pregnancy (a nice Alien reference?) and the intervention of the Voice of God are genuine real-world experiences, allegorically coded comments on everybody’s capacity to carry monsters within, or the hallucinatory externalisation of inner fantasies brought about by the mental strain of addiction or withdrawal or chronic loneliness or drug use or whatever.

Unfortunately this has the disappointing effect of somewhat de-fanging both the novel’s supernatural elements and its more realist focus on American social issues.  Of course it’d be foolish to suggest that one can’t sit comfortably with the other – but Big Machine’s myriad themes of religion, addiction, supernatural horror, poverty and race all kind of get in each others’ way.  The supernatural aspects of the book lack any internal consistency or logic, to the extent that by page 300 there’s a definite feeling that anything goes – which is especially frustrating when random/unexplained magical elements arrive deus ex machina to resolve significant plot events (c.f. Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore).  And while my readerly mores don’t demand constant closure and the satisfaction of a well-rounded explanation, the few-and-far-between moments of unexplained and phantasmagoric magic are too shallow to act as buffer or mitigator to the book’s more realist drug-related concerns.  The suggested promise of supernatural cure-alls bathetically undermines any sense of threat or consequence latent in the seriousness of drug-taking or prostitution or terrorism.

Victor Lavalle clearly has a beautiful cathedral of an imagination, and an obvious deep love of horror/fantasy/Weird fiction, but he’s holding back, perhaps lest he alienate that percentage of his potential audience who’re exclusively interested in Big Machine as an “issues” novel.  It almost works, but too vague supernatural elements clash awkwardly with a heavy focus on contemporary Americana – which itself is often explored through long passages of expositional dialogue.  It’s a question of balance; and if anybody’s going to write the Great American Weird novel, then it probably will be Victor Lavalle.   Big Machine is almost there, but not quite; I’ll definitely queue up to buy his next novel, and look forward to the day when he really lets his imagination run riot.

Tomcat.