Asylum by Patrick McGrath
Originally published in Creative Loafing
The Machineries of Madness
The gothic novel isn't dead; it's just been floundering. Horace Walpole unwittingly created the gothic mode in 1765 with his bizarre little novel, The Castle of Otranto. Novels like Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho and Matthew Lewis' The Monk soon followed. These novels possessed dark, desolate settings replete with ghostly figures and tortured minds.
Since then, writers like Shelley, Hawthorne, Poe, and, today, Anne Rice have all been influenced by the gothic tradition. Horror sprang from this genre, as did, arguably, science fiction. Plundered for its elements by the romance novelists in this century, however, the gothic novel has fallen out of vogue. Writers like Patrick McGrath and Bradford Morrow (who together in 1991 compiled The New Gothic, an anthology of recent literature in the gothic vein) currently are spearheading a resurgence of the gothic novel. Now McGrath follows the success of his earlier works—The Grotesque and Spider—with Asylum, a carefully wrought novel that combines all the traditional elements of Gothicism with a modern understanding of the machineries of madness.
Stella is the wife of Max Raphael, a terminally boring psychiatrist who aspires to the position of superintendent at a mental hospital in rural England. One of the patients, the psychotic sculptor Edgar Stark, seizes Stella's attention as she watches him renovate a Victorian greenhouse in her garden. Her infatuation blossoms at the hospital's annual dance. She dances with Edgar and discovers more of his manliness pressing against her than appropriate; consequently, she finds it difficult to forget that dance. When Peter Cleave, the novel's narrator, learns of her growing attachment to Edgar, he tells her why the artist was committed to the hospital: convinced his wife was a whore, Edgar cut off her head, cut out her eyes, and proceeded to manipulate what was left of her head as if it were a piece of clay. (Pleasant chap, eh?) Warned of Edgar's shortcomings, Stella nonetheless allows her infatuation to deepen. She follows Edgar from rural England to the seamier, bohemian quarters of London. When she finally, fearfully leaves Edgar and returns to her husband, Max is dismissed from the hospital, and the couple moves with their son Charlie to the dank, atmospheric isolation of Wales.
From the beginning, it is obvious that the novel's outcome will be tragic, but McGrath surprises us by taking an unexpected route. In the end, it will be Stella's infatuation for Edgar that causes the most harm, not that man's continuing delusion. McGrath further complicates the novel through Peter Cleave's perspective as the narrator. Cleave isn't deceptive, but his opinions are colored by his own fondness for Stella.
Though Asylum certainly isn't a didactic novel, McGrath does succeed in framing a compassionate view of his doomed characters. Reflecting upon her alienation in Wales, the impassioned Stella decides, “This is the nature of people: they unerringly select as their victim the one who most needs their warmth.” How eloquently phrased; how sadly true.
Asylum is a fine modern addition to the gothic tradition.