Pepper was just trying to be someone’s hero when he got arrested and sent to New Hyde, a budget-strapped mental institution in Queens, New York. He’s not mentally ill, but that doesn’t matter. On his second night, a monster breaks into his room – a beast with the head of a bison and the body of an old man. Its eyes are white and veined with red, its matted fur reeks, and its feet have hardened heels that clop like hooves. Pepper and his roommate are paralysed with fear, and saved only when angry staff members burst into the room with tranquilizers to put an end to their screaming.
Pepper wishes he could blame it all on his drug-addled mind, but everyone on the ward knows about the monster and some believe it to be the Devil himself. Worse, the beast is actually a patient, protected by the staff no matter what it does. It’s kept on an isolated ward behind a massive silver door, but at night it breaks out and preys on the other patients. Trapped in New Hyde and terrified, Pepper rallies some of his companions in a plot to kill the beast. There’s Dorry, an octogenarian who’s been on the ward for decades; Loochie, a 19-year-old girl with anger-management issues; and Coffee, a Ugandan immigrant who spends every cent he can find making calls to the government to warn them about the Devil in New Hyde.
To carry out their plan, the group must deal with the staff, their meds, their own fears, and the mental institution itself. What follows is not a conventional horror novel. It’s not particularly scary in the way we typically understand horror to be scary – giving you gut-clenching scares and making you nervous about being alone in the dark, often using a story splattered with gore. The Devil in Silver has a bit of that, but rather than call it literary horror, I’d call it a literary novel about horror and fear. It is scary, but in the way that the unbelievably twisted realities of modern life are scary.
For example, The Devil in Silver is partly a novel about appallingly inefficient public service systems (as I write, I realise this sounds dreadfully boring, but rest assured, LaValle is a better writer than that). Pepper doesn’t end up at New Hyde because anyone thinks he’s crazy; no one does. He was trying to be a hero by helping a neighbour with her troublesome ex-husband. He got into a fight, and when the cops intervened, he punched one of them. It was an honest mistake – the officers were in plainclothes and Pepper had no way of knowing who they were. Not that they care. They arrested him, but doing the paperwork would mean working overtime without pay. Instead of taking him to the station, they took Pepper to New Hyde and make him someone else’s problem, as they’ve done many times before.
The chief psychologist is well aware of this habit, but according to the law he has to keep Pepper under observation for three days. However, from the moment Pepper is brought into New Hyde, he’s ensnared in a system that sees him only as a “case history, a new admit awaiting diagnosis; a subject. After an hour, Pepper was, officially at least, a mental patient”. And “mental patient” becomes the category that defines Pepper’s existence, at least to the staff members who now control his life.
To be treated like a patient is to be treated “[w]ith rules that defied all common logic; people employed to help you who are unable, really, to even hear you; the sense that the system’s goal is only to keep trouble contained”. Keeping “trouble contained” means doping patients until they’re little more than shuffling, slurring half-wits, so Pepper is forced to take heavy meds from day one. To refuse medication, is to throw yourself into an illogical loop:
“You have the right to refuse,” [the orderly] said. “But refusal is taken as a sign that you’re illness is in control of you.”
“What if I’m refusing because I’m not ill?”
Miss Chris almost barked. “If you was healthy, you wouldn’t refuse!”
Nurses and orderlies are quick to punish any disobedience. Refusing meds means Pepper doesn’t get to eat, because the staff don’t see why he should resist:
The doctor says you need to take your meds, so why not take them? You can’t leave until the doctors believe you’re improving. They won’t believe that if you’re not dosed up. And maybe the damn things are even helping you act like less of a wackadoo. So why not do it? Why not? Why not? Why not? In this way, not evil, even understandable in a way, Terry justified denying Pepper his dinner.
It’s not that the staff members are sadistic. Rather, they function according to a certain “philosophy of life: certain types of people must be overseen”. And, at a more fundamental level, they fear the patients. Any sign that they’re starting to function like normal human beings is treated with deep suspicion because it means they’re not taking their meds. Pepper’s natural belligerence immediately counts against him, as does his frustration and attempts at resistance. When he makes the stupid but understandable decision to escape, the staff members descend on him with tranquilizers. When he eventually wakes up, his three days of observation have turned into weeks of incarceration, and he’s not allowed to leave because the chief psychologist has decided that he’s mentally unstable. Not only are they ruining his life, but he’s trapped in a hospital with a monster who kills people with impunity.
It’s an unbelievably unfair situation, not only for Pepper but for all the patients. But this kind of injustice is a quintessential feature of horror stories, and of life – the way terrible, painful things happen to people who don’t deserve it. It’s terrifying in its own way, not because of the monster but because most of this isn’t even unrealistic. You will balk at the appalling way New Hyde is run, but there’s no comforting assurance that this is pure fiction.
In fact, LaValle is trying to make a point about the insanity of American society, as he explains in an interview with The Huffington Post:
Well, I do, at one point in the book, have a character say that our country is basically an asylum now, and she calls the place The United States of New Hyde. [...] And I’m certainly, in the book, trying to wrestle with the idea that the country feels like it is really going crazy at this moment. Going crazy specifically with fear. The thing that is sort of dogging the characters throughout, is fear. And fear warps our understanding of reality and even our ability to see reality clearly.
The idea that fear warps our sense of reality comes up often. The patients offer several theories of the Devil on the ward, but you don’t know if any of them are true, or if they’re sparked by myths and horror stories. The staff members don’t seem to see the beast that the patients do, but then again they view all the patients as monstrous in some way. And societies at large fear the people they dehumanise, usually foreigners and minorities. But this is a symptom of a larger problem. As one woman says, “Hard times make people scared. And scared people see monsters everywhere.” The fault lies not with the supposed monsters that people see, but with unseen ones, like the unknown owners of New Hyde who earn massive profits at the cost of the people they’re meant to help. As LaValle explains it in his interview
it’s like that old saying: the greatest trick that the Devil ever pulled was to convince people that it didn’t exist. And so there’s two devils in the book: there’s a Monster, and a larger Devil. One who is down on earth, and one who’s actually pulling the strings.
I haven’t said much about the story, but even though it wasn’t what I expected, it’s still a compelling read and the themes do not overwhelm the narrative. If anything, LaValle has balanced them perfectly, so that each enhances the other. There’s a lot of tension, some violence and tragedy, quite a bit of humour, and a dash of feel-good stuff. And yes, there’s a bit of gore, but nothing to get too squeamish about. The way computers are used at New Hyde made me cringe a lot more than the blood did. I mean, consider this:
She had a stack of old files, and she hadn’t logged in one page of the stuff in over an hour. That poor woman was just tapping the Tab key over and over. She planned to do this for six more hours, until her shift ended.
LaValle has a slightly odd, punchy, but easy-to-read writing style full of parentheses that he uses to add colour and depth to his characters and set the tone of the culture. Even though the novel is set almost entirely inside one building, we still get an impression of the cultural “all you-can-eat, mix-and-match buffet” that is Queens. There are a lot of comments about race, class and the way people relate to difference. For this, LaValle uses an omniscient narrator, and the focus frequently flicks away from Pepper to give us an understanding of the other characters.
Overall, it’s a well-crafted, socially conscious and entertaining novel with a lot of insight. I’d recommend whether or not you like horror.