The Short Version: Pepper, a big and somewhat brash guy, has found himself locked up in a psych hospital after an unfortunate incident. He plans to just get through his 72-hour involuntary hold and then go about his business – but after a horrifying creature attacks him in the night and he gets drugged out of his mind, he realizes that maybe he ought to be there after all…
The Review: There’s a quote that comes late in the novel that seems to summarize the whole experience of the book for me: “But it wasn’t a monster that was killing them. It was the mine.”
The context is a story about the titular devil – the “thing” that killed silver miners back during the mining boom – but that’s irrelevant. What’s important is the message that LaValle is trying to express in this book and how it’s pretty perfectly summed up by that two-sentence quote. Because while this book was (strangely and not entirely accurately) marketed as a horror novel, it is actually a novel about the state of our mental health system in this country. Which is horrifying in and of itself but not, exactly, a horror novel under these circumstances – and so readers need to beware: this is a novel about the mine, not the monster.
The thing is, we know LaValle is capable of feats of linguistic creepiness. Big Machine, although I had some issues with how out-there that book got, was creepy and wonderful and absolutely crazy – and so I rather thought I’d be in for more of the same, judging by the jacket copy and whatnot. And I think the reason I feel pretty ‘meh’ about this book, having finished it, is that gap between my expectations (or what I was led to expect – a difference important to denote) and reality. I read it during October, for a reason: I expected a creepy asylum novel with the inmates fighting against the Devil who (for whatever reason) haunts their halls. And while that is indeed a subplot… it all gets really muddled. We’re meant to see the institution and those who run it as what’s truly evil and while they are and we do, I don’t think the book ever actually earns it. The whole thing feels somewhat hazy, as though dosed on the same drugs given to the patients.
This could, of course, have been part of the idea in the first place – to present a novel that swings back and forth between clarity and confusion in the same way that Pepper’s mental state does, depending on how many drugs he’s ingested. And LaValle does a great job in general of crafting unsettled mental states in very easily understood ways – because all of these people are crazy, in one way or another, but they never feel quite like the oft-used clichés of insane people. He also does a cool thing where his writing seems to ‘learn’ along with the development of the story. A character named Coffee is called that until they realize that his name is actually Kofi – and then he’s called that for the rest of the novel. Even at the very beginning, Pepper is known as “the big man” until he introduces himself, at which point the author starts to call him as such. Similarly, there are some authorial interjections and commentary that never hit the point of meta but also feel, in a cool way, like a little hello from the author in the midst of the tale.
But what is this tale? There’s so much that’s unclear that I can’t really tell you what the actual story was. I mean, there are several references to major pop culture works and how this story parallels them all for a time: Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, even some hints at The Shining and 12 Monkeys. But the story never seems to land on any of these tales and instead just floats around and between them – coming closest, I’d say, to Cuckoo’s Nest by the end… but also steadfastly remaining its own thing, perhaps to its detriment. Because I don’t think it quite knows what that thing is.
I would’ve liked, I think, to see LaValle cut away the horror-show trappings and just go for the jugular of the completely fucked up mental health system in this country – because he’s making probably the strongest assault on it since Kesey’s novel, at least so far as I’m aware (I’m sure I’ve missed some great novel about it, so please enlighten me in the comments). Either that or swing in the opposite direction and really embrace the creepy WTF of it all. Is it the Devil? Are there other strange things going on? What’s up with the coincidences and “chances” that lead to life-changing moments? This could’ve been a great modern-Gothic novel or a searing indictment of part of our culture but instead it sort of sits squarely between those two things and, as a result, ends up as kind of nothing.
Rating: 3 out of 5. I think part of the issue is that I expected something very different from what I got. While LaValle’s writing is as sharp and funny (there’s a Sting joke that still has me cracking up) as ever, it’s the plot that seems to be unclear about what it wants. Don’t come looking for a horror novel and you may be better served – just do be prepared for a few creepy-as-hell moments, too. Fair warnings all around, I guess.