Books: The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle

Victor LaValle was yet another author that I had been sadly remiss in hearing about it until his work was recommended on several book review channels I watch. Other than being a novelist, LaValle is also a writing professor at Columbia, as is his wife. They have a son named Geronimo, which I thought was so awesome that I needed to mention it.

The book I’m discussing, The Devil in Silver, originally came out in 2012 and appeared on many notable books lists that year, including that of The New York Times. It isn’t exactly a straight-up horror novel, but I’m not entirely sure what genre I’d characterize it as; it’s sort of like an absurdist satire or black comedy with a monster/horror element that grades more into gory horror toward the end. If you want a sort of elevator pitch for it, I perceived it as something like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets Bubba Ho-Tep, maybe with some Christopher Moore and Franz Kafka thrown in for good measure. And yes, this book is every bit as incredible as that sounds.

Our main protagonist of The Devil in Silver is a man known as Pepper (his real name is Peter, I think, but he’s pretty much always called by his nickname). Pepper is a sort of lovable galoot type of guy; he’s a big, working-class dude who’s employed at a moving company, and though he’s good-hearted, he’s also very hot-headed and perhaps not super bright, with definite anger issues, and he doesn’t always make the best decisions. For example, at the beginning of the book, a woman who he is low-key dating is having problems with her ex-boyfriend, and Pepper decides that the best course of action would be to beat the stuffing out of said ex-boyfriend, even though the woman didn’t ask him to.

In the course of this plan, undertaken at a bar, he indeed does beat the dude senseless, but a larger fight ensues, during which Pepper also pounds on two other dudes who turn out to be undercover cops. Predictably, Pepper is arrested (not for the first time in his life) and taken to the police station, but since it is the middle of the night and the arresting officers are just about to go off shift, they pull this loophole deal which I’m not sure is a real law, though it wouldn’t surprise me if it was (the story is set in Queens, New York, by the way).

Basically, because the officers want to go home on time and don’t want to fill out all the paperwork pertaining to Pepper’s arrest, they opt instead to take him to a mental hospital called New Hyde, where the law says he must stay for 72 hours of observation. This workaround is something the cops always do when they make an arrest right at the end of a shift, it turns out, so that the troublemakers are out of their hair. They apparently don’t give too much of a shit what happens to these unfortunate people after they get dropped off at the hospital.

Obviously, Pepper isn’t really “crazy” in the broader understanding of the term; he’s just a mostly likeable guy who has a hard time controlling his emotions and doesn’t like being told what to do. Since much of the story is told from Pepper’s (third person) perspective, the reader understands that Pepper is nothing more than a victim of his own lovable stupidity, which makes it extra harrowing when Pepper unsurprisingly lashes out at his “captors,” making him look as insane as the cops tried to paint him. Pepper is drugged to calm him down, and when he wakes up, the 72 hours have passed. He now has to undergo “assessment” to determine whether he will have to stay at New Hyde indefinitely.

Pepper, it seems, is all kinds of fucked. He’s stuck in this hospital, the staff have taken all his things, and he doesn’t really have anyone on the outside who can advocate for him and help him get out of his predicament. Any protest he makes about his situation is taken as more evidence of his instability. Because the reader is privy to Pepper’s thoughts and emotions, we really feel for the guy’s hopeless situation, even though in many ways he did bring it on himself.

At first, Pepper is wary of the other “patients,” perceiving them as crazy, as most people thrust into this situation probably would. But as he gets to know them, he realizes that most of them are just as sane as he is, and are in the hospital for essentially similar reasons. A few of the patients do probably belong there, but all of them are portrayed as very human and likeable, even if they do have problems. As the book goes on, the reader also starts to feel more and more for Pepper and the other characters, as the entire book is set in this hospital, and you begin to feel trapped in there with them, which made the story that much more effective.

The most lovable of the other inmates is an elderly woman named Dorry, who is schizophrenic and has been in New Hyde for years. She is very friendly, and has taken on the role of a sort of ambassador for new patients; she is the first patient to introduce herself, gives people tours and shows them the ropes, that sort of thing. She’s kind of like everyone’s beloved grandma. She also knows pretty much all the hospital’s secrets, one of which concerns a mysterious silver door at the end of a restricted hallway.

During Pepper’s tour, Dorry informs him that the silver door is always locked, and if you so much as take a step in the direction of the ward that contains it, the staff will be on you like white on rice. This is because, we soon learn, the locked door conceals a very special patient.

The other inmates call this individual the Devil, and Pepper actually sees this being for himself one night. The creature is not the actual Devil, it seems, but appears as a very old man with the head of a bison. And not just a guy with a bison mask on; it’s an actual bison head on a man’s body. This “patient” maneuvers through the hospital through the ceiling ducts, and occasionally drops down into the other patients’ rooms, supposedly causing them to die, though sometimes the patients simply disappear. Understandably, everyone in the hospital is terrified of this thing.

It’s left ambiguous as to what exactly this creature is. All of the patients appear to perceive the Devil as an old man with a bison head, but the staff treat the thing as though he’s just a regular patient, or at least pretend that he doesn’t look the way he does. So we don’t know whether the patients are all seeing him as he really is, or if it’s a case of mass psychosis.

Regardless, as the story goes on and Pepper forms deeper friendships with the other inmates at New Hyde, learning to understand them and himself with much greater clarity, he, Dorry, and another patient named Loochie decide to rally everyone together in order to fight the monster and determine what he’s been doing to the patients who have died or disappeared, and how much the staff know about the reality of the situation.

As I mentioned, this is largely a satirical novel with definite horror elements, and it actually has quite a lot to say about how society treats mental illness, as well as the way bureaucracies make victims of everyone not in the very top echelon of society. There’s also an aspect of Kafka-esque absurdity to the story, particularly in regards to the staff of the hospital, who—although authority figures in this tiny fiefdom and thus seen largely as enemies by the inmates—are forced to work with ancient computers and filing systems that weren’t even designed for the purpose they’re used for. The message being that the staff, though higher on the food chain than the patients, are also being screwed by the people above them.

Honestly, the characterization and genuine heart in this novel is so riveting and emotionally engaging that I would have loved it even if it didn’t have the whole monster angle; I could have just read a whole dark comedy about these lovable characters trapped in this hospital. But the introduction of the ambiguity surrounding the “Devil” and what it represents makes this an even richer experience. The writing style is also quite offbeat and entertaining, and I will definitely be searching out more of Victor LaValle’s work in the future. If you like The Devil in Silver, I also found out that there’s a sort of related novella called Lucretia and the Kroons, which is about the Loochie character and came out in 2012 as well.

Definitely recommend this one, particularly if you’re a fan of literary horror with a satirical edge. Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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