Pepper, a guy who is a bit of a trouble maker but harmless is put into a psychiatric hospital even though he is not mentally ill. That’s bad enough, but there is a monster that roams the halls at night and kills inmates. Sounds like a cross between ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and a Stephen King novel. That was enough to convince me to read it. I expected a creepy story; I did not expect a book about large themes that engaged the heart. But that is what this novel is.
Pepper is taken to the psychiatric ward of New Hyde, a grossly under funded New York city hospital, because he took a swing at three plainclothes policemen in the process of trying to scare off the stalker ex-husband of his neighbor. Because it’s the end of shift, and they won’t get paid overtime for doing paperwork, they dump him for a 72 hour psychiatric hold, which requires only a few minutes of their time. This by itself would be the stuff of a Kafka story, but things rapidly get much, much worse. Pretty soon Pepper has been drugged (Haldol, an antipsychotic, and lithium, a mood stabilizer, given without a diagnosis or even an indication of his needing them), put in restraints for days, given tranquilizers so heavy duty he has no recollection of time passed, and visited by the monster. New Hyde isn’t a place where patients get treatment. It’s a place where they are warehoused. Few walk out the door. Everyone is drugged into submission. If the drugs don’t take the spirit out of an inmate there, the boredom will- their sole source of entertainment is a single TV set. There are no activities and the food is nearly inedible. Things couldn’t get much worse, could they? Hold on to that thought.
A monstrous Minotaur stalks the halls at night. It’s real; the staff sees it, too. In the process of discovering its secret, Pepper will have to make his way through a labyrinth, without a ball of string to help him find his way back. Pepper will also have to learn a lot about himself and grow up, going from somewhat narcissistic doofus to a caring person who thinks of others. The story is as much about people, relationships, race, society, and cruelty as it is about horror.
The novel is gripping, although it has some oddities. The omniscient narrator frequently breaks the 4th wall, speaking to the reader directly and inserting rants about society that I thought would have been better shown to us than hitting us over the head with them- in fact, the story itself pretty well shows them to us anyway. In a way, those interludes are amusing, but they do break the mood. The end left me with questions about how the revealed monster could have done the things it did. But these are minor quibbles; the book is an excellent blend of horror and literary fiction.