Sunday, October 23, 2011

Asylum (1997)

If Patrick McGrath's amazing novel of psychological horror never quite transcends the niche it occupies so well as a puzzle box of tricks and deceptions, it nevertheless must be counted as one of the finest examples of it you will find. It's creepy, nerve-wracking, clever, written with such elegance that the decadence rolls off in unrelieved waves, so engrossing from the first page forward it's a dark thrill ride at some point you find yourself hoping will never stop—even as it gets wound up so tight you wish it would for God's sake. I haven't yet read anything else by McGrath that matches it, and very few things by anyone else beyond the accepted masters, such as Edgar Allan Poe. John Fowles (The Magus) and Ian McEwan (The Innocent) are about as far as I'm willing to venture in terms of comparison, and even there I'm worried that I'm just mixing up my morbid Brits. Maybe Alan Moore, another Brit, and one who works in another medium altogether, comic books. Certainly McGrath matches his facility for storytelling and for striking the macabre tone without being a cackling buffoon about it. This is truly scary, disturbing stuff in its best moments. So many things that I naturally gravitate toward are on display here: Freudian obsession, cruelty, high gothic overtones, and a nicely plotted story that may fairly be called "gripping," its momentum hurtling one forward into the dark night to the finish. There's a beautiful woman married to an official at a high-security psychiatric hospital. There's a madman who's not actually mad who seduces her. Or wait, he's probably mad. No. I don't know. There's a Machiavellian puppet-master pulling strings. Maybe. There are masks behind masks and layers of identity peeling away, and of course multiple twists and surprises. And always we are in the hands of a storyteller whose seductive power only grows, a pitiless master. At some points it feels as if the book could instruct one to go make a cup of tea for the author and it's as likely as not that readers, zombie fashion, would. It's not often enough that someone capable of imagining a plot as intricate and byzantine as this can deliver it with such precise and lovely language. Anyone who hasn't read this yet, I envy you. Go have yourself a good time.

In case it's not at the library.

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