A justly heralded classic of the neo-Gothic horror genre, this brooding tale of obsessive desire and psychic damage bears comparison with the fiction that Ruth Rendell writes under the name Barbara Vine. As in the Vine novels, the mood here is one of steadily emergent dread—a dread whose true source or meaning lies veiled beneath the narrative surface until, like a suddenly uncoiled spring, it snaps into place in the book’s final pages. Using as his setting the rarefied, enclosed world of a rural home for the criminally insane, McGrath construes an elegant pattern of overlapping love triangles, each one more unstable than the next. At the center of this pattern is the illicit bond that develops between Stella Raphael, the bored wife of a staff psychiatrist at that institution, and Edgar Stark, an artist who was sent there after the brutal murder of his wife. As told by Peter Cleave, a psychiatrist who ends up treating both of them, their story takes on a macabre grandeur that transcends both the clinical verities of modern “mental health” and the easy nostrums of traditional morality. One thing only is clear: By the laws of Gothic irony, the eponymous asylum can offer no sanctuary to its denizens.
PATRICK McGRATH. Asylum (1997).