In Madeleine Roux’s young adult novel Asylum, past meets present in a murderous way on the grounds of an infamous mental institution.
Count me in!
The book is illustrated with actual photographs of asylums from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, photos which add to the creep factor considerably. In fact, it was this aspect of the novel which first got me interested. I’m morbidly fascinated by abandoned buildings (which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to regular readers), and photographs of abandoned hospitals and asylums always have that extra layer of uneasiness to me.
The story is about a socially awkward and outcast boy named Dan Crawford, who is going to a special summer session for gifted and talented high school students. The college campus where the session takes place has an old asylum on the grounds. And wouldn’t you know,this asylum has been converted into dormitories–the very dormitory where Dan and his fellow high schoolers are to stay. It doesn’t take too long for Dan and a couple new-found friends to begin snooping around in the abandoned offices and corridors in the basement. It’s not too long after that when they uncover the sordid history of the asylum and its Warden, who ran dangerous medical experiments on the mentally ill, convinced he could cure the worst of the criminally insane.
Dan finds that he has intimate connections to the old asylum–right down to having the exact same name as the infamous Warden. From there the connections only get creepier and weirder, until Daniel finds that he is reliving memories that are not his own. Then the bodies start to pile up, with Daniel the prime suspect.
This is a great horror story, with wonderful pacing and a cinematic kind of feel. Roux’s characters are not all that nuanced, but they’re enjoyable. There’s wonderful dialogue and character voices, and even though they’re a little one-dimensional, Dan and his friends have a believable rapport. The best parts of this novel are the tension-building moments, when Roux is describing an abandoned operating theater or a murder scene in the pounding rain. Asylum is a scary story to read for the atmosphere, descriptions, and plot.
The next book in this series, Sanctum, is due out in August. It promises more of the same creepiness, found photographs, and thrills with the same characters. You can learn more about it on the Goodreads page.
Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children might be a good choice, if you enjoy the conceit of using found photographs to inform a story. That book is much more of an adventure with some fantastical overtones, though, rather than a horror story. There’s also a lovely bit of dark historical fiction called Picture the Dead by Adele Griffin, which is about a girl named Jennie whose fiance dies in the Civil War. Soon after, she discovers the new art of photography, and how it can appear to make the spirits of the dead visible. While it doesn’t use found photographs, it does have wonderful illustrations (by Lisa Brown) made to look like stylized scrapbook pages.
Roux’s work reminded me of Alexandra Sokoloff’s in many ways–the college setting, the rather motley crew of characters, the immediately foreboding atmosphere that only gets more oppressive as the story goes forward, and the protagonist who is afraid he might actually be losing his mind. Try The Harrowing if you enjoyed Asylum.