The Devil in Silver, by Victor LaValle

devilinsilverTitle: The Devil in Silver

Author: LaValle, Victor (Author’s Website)

Genre: Horror, Psychological Suspense

Bibliographic: Spiegel & Grau, 412 pages, Hardcover List Price $27.00, Paperback List Price $16.00, Audiobook List Price $34.99, ISBNs 9781400069866, 9780812982251, 9780679604860

Publication Date: August 21, 2012

Rating: ★★★★☆/♥♥♥♡♡(The rating scale is here).

Appeal Factors: Fast-paced, disturbing, melancholy, compelling

Why I picked it up: I got it as a part of a surprise subscription box, and thought the combination of an actual monster with the powerlessness of a mental institution would make a good mix of things to discuss.

S.I.A.S.: Pepper doesn’t belong in this mental institution, and will do almost anything to escape the monster inside.

Summary: To impress his on-again/off-again girlfriend, Pepper picks a fight with her ex — and when three undercover cops join the fray, he keeps right on fighting, up until they reveal themselves and arrest him. Since NYPD has just implemented a no-overtime rule, they decide to take him to the New Hyde Mental Hospital instead of to jail, so that someone else will have to do the paperwork. During his admission meeting, he notices a weird snorting noise and a terrible smell. The doctors decide to hold him for 72 hours for observation, even though it’s pretty clear that he’s not mentally ill.

He meets a patient named Dorry right away, and she gives him a tour: men are on hallway two, women on three, and four is “where the buffalo roam.”  She deposits him in his room, and he falls into an uneasy sleep. The next morning, he is given lithium and haldol, which knock him into a stupor. The second night, Pepper wakes up to find a monster standing next to his bed with its fingers down his throat. It has mottled gray skin, the body of an old man, and the head of a bison. The staff doesn’t seem to mind.

When Pepper comes out of his drug-induced haze, he’s shocked to discover that he’s been in the hospital for several weeks — apparently, his behavior on medication was sufficiently strange that the doctors decided to have him involuntarily committed. In an attempt to make the best of the situation, Pepper, Dorry, Pepper’s roommate Coffee and a nineteen-year-old-girl named Loochie decide to try to defeat the monster, which they believe to be the devil (yes, that Devil).

Their attempt is unsuccessful, and things get weirder and weirder in the aftermath — several patients lose their lives, conditions deteriorate, Pepper finds love in a surprising place, and the staff do mountains of paperwork.

Evaluation:  I finished this book four days ago, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. It’s clear that Victor LaValle is a very talented writer, but the writing style of the book was somewhat off-putting. He quite often breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly, and the entire book is written in a very casual tone; there are multiple instances of slang, and the whole thing feels chatty. It’s unusual for a horror novel — in my experience, horror novels are usually dark and foreboding, and this is neither of those things. Even the foreshadowing, such as Dorry’s comment about Northwest Four being “where the buffalo roam” or Coffee’s frantic phone calls to the outside, isn’t creepy so much as compelling.

The plot worked very well. It is easy to see how Pepper, in particular, would come to make the decisions he did given the events of the first half of the book. Most of the characters are somewhat flat, but it makes sense in context: we are primarily given this story from Pepper’s viewpoint, and so we see the patients as Pepper sees them. Even so, you never feel like any of the characters are acting in a way that’s not consistent or a way that draws you away from the story.

The Devil in Silver has three major flaws, as I see it: Sue’s salvation, LeClair the Rat, and the truth about the Devil. It was just too unbelievable to me that the number Coffee pulled out of thin air just happened to be Sue’s sister’s number and Pepper just happened to know that and call it. I always have trouble with Deus Ex Machina, and while I don’t think that this flaw is significant to prevent me from recommending the book to people I would probably mention it before I encouraged someone to read this. Second, I found the section narrated from the rat’s perspective to be jarringly out of place. It distracted me from the story and didn’t really add anything to the book, at least in my opinion. I hesitate to discuss my third problem with the book, since I’ve decided to keep this blog spoiler-free, but suffice to say this: given the truth we eventually learn about the Devil, I don’t understand how all of the other patients came to think of him the way they did. Where did the idea of a buffalo come from? What did his eyes really look like? What is the source of the other patients’ agreement about him? Even though things were technically explained, I wasn’t satisfied with the explanations.

I think that maybe pitching this as a horror novel is not the best way to advertise it, but I’m not really sure what genre would be better. I’ve seen that some websites categorize it as “African-American fiction,” but that kind of makes me uneasy since a reader obviously doesn’t have to be African-American to enjoy it. I guess I would probably just call it “dark fiction” or “twisty fiction” or something like that.

SignificanceThe Devil in Silver is a surprisingly sharp satire which deals a bit with race relations and a LOT with the mental health industry, which I didn’t expect from a book pitched as a horror novel.

Readalikes: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken KeseyShutter Island, by Dennis LehaneYou, by Caroline Kepnes.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. Are weakness and powerlessness the same thing? How are they related in the lives of the patients?
  2. Were you surprised when you found out that Loochie was black? Why might LaValle have waited so long to mention it?
  3. How did you feel about Sue’s happy ending? Was it believable? Why or why not?
  4. What do you think about the way Sal talks to the patients? Is this typical of how the mentally ill are treated in the media?
  5. Were you surprised to learn the truth about Mr. Visserplein? Why or why not?

Lists and Awards:  The Washington Post 50 Notable Works of Fiction — 2012. The New York Times 100 Notable Books — 2012. Shirley Jackson Award Finalist 2012.

Professional Reviews:  New York Times. Boston Globe. Publishers’ Weekly. Washington Post. Kirkus.

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