Sunday, June 30, 2013

Book Review: The Asylum: More Gothic Victorian Greatness From John Harwood

~Review by Marie Robinson

John Harwood is one of those rare authors who hasn’t written a book I didn’t like. Well, except for two nonfiction books he wrote early in his career that I haven’t read… but in recent years Harwood has established himself as a horror novelist. Christine and I both loved his previous novel, The Séance, and we even gave it a brief yet positive review on the site.

Just this past May Harwood released his newest Gothic tale, The Asylum. Twenty-year-old Georgina Ferrars wakes up one day to find herself in a mental hospital in an English town she has never been to. What is even stranger is that she has checked herself under a false name and can remember nothing of the last several weeks. When she tries to gain correspondence with her uncle, her only remaining family member, she receives only a brief telegram back saying that Georgina Ferrars is presently there, and that she must be an imposter. Trapped within the confines of a madhouse where she is held by people who think her to be insane, Georgina must piece together the mystery of her life, those forgotten weeks, and the girl who claims to be her.

This three-part book goes between tradition narrative, journal entries, and letters, making it an interesting and stimulating read. Much like Harwood’s other novels, it is a genuine page-turner dripping with atmosphere unique to late Victorian London. Georgina is an interesting protagonist because although she seems to be an unreliable character (she is not even in a place to trust herself) you really want to believe her, and you inevitably finding yourself rooting for her, and yearning for the ever-building clues to unravel the mystery.

John Harwood has adopted this old-fashioned Gothic writing style in all three of his novels; you may think this means that the text is dry, brittle and cryptic (even though I, myself, love a traditional Gothic piece) but that certainly is not the case. Although an homage to an older style of writing, the words are fresh and alive, almost nostalgic in their cadence. I’m sure this is what Harwood is going for, and I’d be curious who he would cite as his influences; if I were to guess simply by the flavors I picked up in this book I’d say Poe, Wilde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and definitely some Algernon Blackwood.

Bethlem Royal Hospital
While the asylum that Georgina is held at in the novel is considered to be highly humane and advanced for its time, there is many a reference to the notorious real-life London asylum, Bethlem. In the Victorian era it was more like a prison than a hospital; patients existed in deplorable conditions. They were much of the time unsupervised and “dangerous” patients were chained to the floor. Believe it or not, for the price of one pence the public was allowed access to walk around and few the patients like animals in a zoo—they could even prod at them through the bars with a stick! Since then it has become one of the leading examples of excellence in mental health, but it will forever be infamous for its grotesque beginnings.

Even though his sophmore title The Séance is still my favorite of his, I really enjoyed this book, and I sincerely hope Harwood keeps up his creepy tales!


Chris Hewson said...

This sounds very interesting! I'll have to track it down and give it a read!

Justin Wong said...

Hmm! I was just looking for something new to read so I think I'll give The Seance a try first. Luckily, the library has several copies, score...

Marie said...

Definitely! Thanks for reading, gents!