I love being surprised, and this may be one of the most surprising books I’ve ever read. When I picked up The Devil in Silver, I was expecting a traditional horror story set in a mental institution. Technically that’s what this is, but not in the ways you might be thinking. The Devil in Silver has horror elements for sure, but there are so many touching human moments in the story that a reader might easily be fooled into believing this is literary fiction. But it’s so much more than that. LaValle has created something special by blending complex character studies and a horrific presence that may or may not be human into one seamless and engaging story.
Pepper is having a bad day. He’s just been arrested for punching a cop, but instead of being taken to the police station, the three cops from the altercation bring him to the New Hyde mental hospital. Once he’s checked in and told he must remain there for a 72-hour waiting period, Pepper grudgingly accepts his fate and goes about settling in. But due to some highly potent pills that he is forced to take three times a day, the 72 hours stretches into months, and Pepper realizes that in order to get out of the loony bin, he’s going to have to try to break out. His long days and nights in New Hyde are filled with getting to know his quirky inmates, including his roommate Coffee, an older woman named Dorry who greets Pepper when he arrives, and a young teenaged girl named Loochie who is full of unfocused rage but hides a vulnerable spirit. The four become partners in crime as they try again and again to escape the high barbed-wire walls of the hospital, sometimes with tragic results.
But lurking somewhere on the second floor is a creature who might be the devil, a monstrous man-beast with cloven hooves and the head of a bison, at least that’s what it looks like to Pepper. Dorry, Coffee and Loochie have all seen the beast as well, and whatever it is, it’s dangerous. Pepper and his friends devise a drug-addled plan to not only escape New Hyde, but possibly kill the devil before they go.
One of the best surprises of this book is how funny it is. Lavalle has a true talent for using dialog and narrative passages to boil down the essence of his characters, like this description of Dorry after she goes off her meds:
“She used to look like Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd. Now she looked like Angela Lansbury on Murder, She Wrote.”
Despite the grim daily life of shuffling through the hallways in a drug stupor and the callous and sometimes cruel treatment of the orderlies, each character still has something that motivates them to go on living. One of my favorite scenes happens late in the book after a suicide. In order for the police to complete their investigation, the patients must leave the facility temporarily, so the orderlies take them on a walk to a nearby pizza parlor. The absurdity of this scene, where the inmates focus not on the opportunity to run away, but on the anticipation of eating pizza in a restaurant outside, is a great example of the irony-filled moments that LaValle scatters throughout his book.
Lavalle’s prose is gorgeous, and he often uses the ocean as a metaphor for being trapped in a mental hospital, as in this description of Pepper being forced to take medication:
“It took him hours to swim back to the shores of consciousness. And who was waiting for him right there on the beach? A nurse carrying a small white cup. Casting him out to sea again.”
A couple of stylistic choices bothered me a bit, but not enough to change my opinion of the overall story. For example, the author often inserts himself into the narrative by placing personal comments in parentheses:
“Dr. Anand didn’t respond to that. (Would you?)”
I also had trouble with some of the POV shifts, which happened suddenly and were a bit jarring. Most of the story is told through Pepper’s eyes, and I would have liked to stay there during the entire story. Although I did love one short passage near the end of the book when we get inside the head of a giant rat. Not only does the rat play an important part in what happens to one of the characters, but his story is just as heartbreaking as the stories of New Hyde’s patients.
The book is filled with memorable scenes that really have nothing to do with the “devil” of the title, surprisingly enough, and are the things I’ll remember most about The Devil in Silver. At first I thought the introduction of a new character half-way through was a bad idea, but when Pepper gets together with a Chinese woman named Sue, LaValle sets up one of the book’s most poignant moments. I won’t tell you how the story ends, but believe me when I say the ending is perfect, as the author uses The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh as a catalyst for Pepper’s redemption. Even the final revelation of the meaning behind the book’s title gave me goose bumps, and not the scary kind.
My only worry for The Devil in Silver is that it won’t find its audience. This book deserves all kinds of attention, and I hope the label of “horror” does not scare off potential readers. I dare you to take on the devil and read this book.
All quotes in this review were taken from the uncorrected proof and may not reflect the final version of the book.
Many thanks to Random House Publishing Group for supplying a review copy.
You can purchase The Devil in Silver here.