Friday, October 24, 2014

Why I like Shadows in the Asylum: The Case Files of Dr. Charles Marsh

Why I like D.A. Stern's Shadows in the Asylum: The Case Files of Dr. Charles Marsh

1) A little autobiographical note: my first post-college internship was for the San Francisco District Attorney's office's criminal investigation division. The bulk of the job involved preparing discovery documentation for defense attorneys, which meant I spent my days looking through fascinating information processed through extremely tedious forms. One murderer in particular, a mentally-ill drifter who butchered a teenage girl, had a lifetime of paperwork stretching back to institutionalized forms from the late 1950s. Taken together, the entire case file presented the sordid, sad details of a man's mental degeneration and the institutional failure to treat him properly.

2) Horror fiction is full of people finding discarded documentation. Beleaguered heroes are constantly finding old case files, mysterious tomes, and newspaper clippings pasted on serial killer's walls. These little clues provide tantalizing glimpses into the origin of whatever evil the characters are facing. D.A. Stern's Shadows in the Asylum is an epistolary novel where all those little clippings tell the story of a doctor, a mental patient, and the supernatural horror stalking them both.

3) The novel never breaks from it's central premise. The entire book is told in therapy session reports, newspaper clippings, surveillance footage, and album liner notes. While it seems like the haphazard nature of the collection would prevent close identification with the characters, but the doctor's notes show the the man's struggles, doubt, and acceptance.

4) Because of the way the story is told, the events feel very real. Fiction has a lot of fundamental artificiality that comes from trying to create a prose style. As the novel effectively mimics different forms of formal documentation rather than telling a single narration, it really does feel like a found artifact of some terrible event.

5) The book also does mental health facilities better than anything I've ever seen. Horror is full of Arkham Asylum-style madhouses, full of cackling madmen beating their heads against padded walls. The psychiatric care facility in the book seems to function correctly. It's a higher-end institution, with good counselors, regular treatment, and a strong drug regimen. It seems plausible, which makes the supernatural elements seem plausible.

6) The horror at the core of the story unfolds slowly. For most of the book, the tales of shadows creeping the hospital hallways seem like ordinary delusions. The doctor finds a potential cause, resolves it, and the book appears to be on the way to a happy ending. Once the real evil makes itself known, the book takes on a new level of fear. The book is ultimately a Lovecraftian horror story, where the monster is something alien and unknowable, causing havoc with it's presence in the asylum. It's one of the scariest creatures I've ever encountered in horror fiction.

Conclusion: I'm really sad that Shadows in the Asylum didn't get a bigger following. It's a really unique and scary book, one of the best haunted-house stories I've ever read. It creates one of the most convincing fictional worlds I've ever seen, and rewards people for falling deeper into the story. I own several copies of the book so I can come back and revisit it over time. It has my highest recommendation.

1 comment:

Callef said...

I just finished reading "Shadows in the Asylum" and enjoyed it because I liked the format, with all the different types of documents and the visual way it was presented. However, I'm not sure I understand the ending, and I really don't want to go back through the whole thing! I get that Dr. Marsh was partly responsible for the execution of an innocent man - was Nathanial (Nathan) the real killer? Could you explain the ending to me? Thanks