Pepper may have the worst luck of any man I’ve seen in fiction. Pepper, in what he believes to be an act of chivalry, goes to warn off the ex of a woman he’s interested in. When some cops happen to show up and Pepper starts fighting them, they take him to a place where they can dump him so that he’ll be off the streets but where they don’t have to do the paperwork: New Hyde Hospital. Before the end of the first chapter of The Devil in Silver, by Victor LaValle, Pepper finds himself locked up in a cell with an obsessive roommate and dosed to the gills with psychotropic medication. On top of all this, something terrible and inhumane is stalking the hospital and killing patients.
In 1973, a psychologist and a bunch of psychology students conducted an experiment. They would claim to have hallucinations until they were committed to a mental hospital. Once they had been committed, they would drop their acts and see how long it took for the staff to notice that there were sane people in their hospital. To quote Wikipedia, “All were forced to admit to having a mental illness and had to agree to take antipsychotic drugs as a condition of their release. The average time that the patients spent in the hospital was 19 days. All but one were diagnosed with schizophrenia ‘in remission’ before their release.” The Devil in Silver brought back all the shock I felt when I heard about the Rosenhan Experiment or Nellie Bly’s experiment at the women’s asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Pepper is not mentally ill but, because he has been involuntarily committed at a mental hospital, he is treated by all the staff as if he is. Even if his life (and the lives of the other patients) weren’t in immediate danger by the creature in the walls, he is in very real danger of losing his mind in the terrible, abusive, drugged confines of New Hyde.
The Devil in Silver is a meandering novel, especially for a horror novel. In fact, more of this book is literary fiction than horror. I have to classify it as horror because of the aforementioned creature in the walls. In between attacks by the creature and tense moments trying to track down said creature, The Devil in Silver discusses the collapse of Americans mental health system, run by a cruel Kafka-esque bureaucracies driven by milking profit out of the system; the injustice of the immigration system; dehumanization; fundamental breakdowns of communication when people fail to listen to each other; and more. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is frequently referenced and Jaws and Dead Souls make appearances. Not only will this book terrify you with its monster, it can freak you on on an existential level.
I liked a lot of The Devil in Silver, but there is one major loose end that is not tied up at the end that annoyed me enough to keep me from wholeheartedly loving this book. Personally, even though the ending let me down, I would love to read this book with a group because I want to talk about the deeper themes of the book. While this book could have been set any time in the last fifty years (or more, to be honest), the injustices Pepper faces are still very much with us. I don’t know if anyone has found the right way to care for people with severe mental illnesses who are a danger to others and themselves. Readers who like a hefty dose of terror with their food for thought will enjoy this book. Readers who like thoughtful horror novels will have a good time, too, but will probably be as irritated as I was that we never really find out how the creature in the walls came to be.