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The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle

Published by Spiegel & Grau on August 21, 2012

A large man who calls himself Pepper is detained for 72 hours of observation in a psychiatric hospital after a run-in with a trio of cops who are too lazy to arrest him. Drugged into a zombie-like state by psychotropic medications, Pepper is menaced by some sort of creature. Is it real or a construct of his addled brain? Is it the Devil or is there a logical explanation for the creature's presence?

As the days go by, the hospital turns out to be a lot like Hotel California: you can check out, but you can never leave. When patients start to check out -- killed by the Devil? -- Pepper decides to investigate. Whatever the thing might be, it lives behind a silver door and staff members seem to be protecting it.

The Devil in Silver is an unconventional horror story. Victor LaValle's accurate rendering of a psychiatric ward is enough to provoke shudders -- more so, in fact, than the resident monster. The novel's strength lies in its characterization of Pepper and the other patients. Their antics provide a large dose of comedy to offset the horror. The sheer loopiness of the story is, in fact, what sustained my interest. This isn't the most politically correct novel you'll ever read, but it's often quite funny.

The best horror stories persuade the reader that the nightmare is real. The Devil in Silver is just too goofy to be frightening, but again, this isn't a conventional horror story. Instead, LaValle seems to suggest that true horror is found in the abuse of power: by trigger-happy police officers, by hospital administrators who place profit ahead of treatment, by clinicians who overmedicate patients because a docile patient population is less work. Some chapters seem like an homage to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, to which LaValle makes occasional reference, but The Devil in Silver moves in a much different direction than Ken Kesey's classic.

While The Devil in Silver is entertaining, it does have faults. The narration calls attention to itself with a flippant attitude and it occasionally speaks directly to the reader (with phrases like "you won't be too surprised to learn"). The narrative voice is distracting; it frequently took me out of the story. A long section devoted to the history of a rat named LeClair is an amusing but unnecessary digression. A chapter that doesn't work very well recounts the story of Vincent Van Gough to make a veiled point about the lack of attention given to institutionalized patients in contemporary America. The ending is a bit of a letdown.

Faults notwithstanding, The Devil in Silver works as light comedy that addresses a dark subject. It isn't easy to avoid burying the serious within the fluff of frivolity, but LaValle manages to balance humor and tragedy in a story that is strange but purposeful.


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