Asylum
by Patrick McGrath (1996)
Vintage (1998)
254 pp

A few weeks ago when I realized that October was just around the corner (I’m always behind on this stuff these days), I decided to look for a good literary creepy book with loads of atmosphere. Hence, my venture to Patrick McGrath. Here’s yet another well known author who is new to me. Thanks to John Self’s blog — yes, “Asylum” — I am now an initiate to this “gothic” author. So here is a bit of an homage to you, John. It’s because of your blog I chose this particular author — one of your favorites, I see — and this particular title as my first.

I have to be honest: at first I wasn’t sure I picked out the right book for me, let alone the right book to suit my mood. At first it felt a bit too — oh, I don’t know — focused on unruly passionate romance. That unsatisfied feeling didn’t last too long, though. Quickly, I saw that the development of the love affair was not nearly as important as its psychological repercussions. And McGrath does an excellent job creating tension through the psyche.

Though as I said the first couple dozen pages didn’t work for me, the first paragraph really grabbed me as it explained quite a bit of what was to come:

The catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years now. Such relationships vary widely in duration and intensity but tend to pass through the same stages. Recognition. Identification. Assignation. Structure. Complication. And so on. Stella Raphael’s story is one of the saddest I know. A deeply frustrated woman, she suffered the predictable consequences of a long denial collapsing in the face of sudden overwhelming temptation. And she was a romantic. She translated her experience with Edgar Stark into the stuff of melodrama, she made of it a tale of outcast lovers braving the world’s contempt for the sake of a great passion. Four lives were destroyed in the process, but whatever remorse she may have felt she clung to her illusions to the end. I tried to help but she deflected me from the truth until it was too late. She had to. She couldn’t afford to let me see it clearly, it would have been the ruin of the few flimsy psychic structures she had left.

Here we meet our narrator, Peter Cleave, a psychiatrist at an asylum for the criminally insane. Stella is the wife to the newly staffed forensic psychiatrist, the ambitious Max Rapheal. Edgar Stark, Stella’s lover, happens to be one of Peter Cleave’s patients, an artist who, after developing jealous delusions, killed his wife and then mutilated her head.

Even though Stella knows a bit about Edgar’s past, she is incredibly attracted to him as he works to fix up their conservatory. She simply cannot believe that he’s as dangerous as they say, and in fact she doesn’t believe he should be locked up at all. This is all background, though, and something we can basically get from that first paragraph.

Once the love affair develops, however, the book immerses itself into Stella’s psyche as she navigates through her relationships with Edgar and Max and Doctor Cleave. Here, for example, is an encounter Stella has with Max soon after the love affair is off the ground.

Behind him on the far side of the drive the pines rose in a dark mass against the evening sky. She embraced him with a warmth unusual for her, and as she did so an ironic thought sprang into her mind, that it’s the guilt of the adulterous woman that drives her into her husband’s arms.

“Hello,” he said as she clung to him like a woman adrift, a woman drowning, “what’s all this?”

She moved away to the mirror over the empty fireplace and patted at her hair, and tried to find some sign of sin on her face.

“Nothing. I missed you today, that’s all.”

“Why did you miss me?”

She turned to face him. There was real curiosity in his voice, and she felt the psychiatrist in the man, or rather, the man receded and the psychiatrist emerged as the wheels turned and she saw him examine this fragment of her psychic life and fish around for its meaning. In that moment he became her enemy. She knew then that any openness between them was dangerous, and that her explosive secret must be hidden with especial skill from the eyes of this sudden stranger with his desperately acute powers of mental intrusion and perception.

Thankfully for me, the book continues in this vein, focusing mainly on internal elements rather than on the love affair. And McGrath has some other interesting components to the story. It doesn’t take long before we can start wondering how Peter Cleave knows as much about the love affair as he does. And soon after we can begin questioning how he fits into this mix. Though his language is most of the time clinically detached, we can discern that that is one of his own devices for covering his feelings.

Bolstering the narrative are a number of gothic elements — the architecture, a conservatory, the garden, the sea, the torrential love — but none of them feel clichéd or out-of-place for the story. In other words, while this has gothic elements, I wouldn’t say it’s a “gothic” book. That would, in my opinion, place it in a restricting category. It’s much more than that.

So I’m happy with my first foray into McGrath’s land. I’m sad to report, however, that it wasn’t quite as moody and disturbing in a creepy, haunting way as I was hoping. Any suggestions?

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