Once again, Book Bingo does its job, albeit not in the way I expected. Way back before I ramped up my reading to current levels and started writing about books, I read and loved The Ballad of Black Tom. It put Victor LaValle on my mental list of intriguing authors, but with mixed reviews for his other work, I was never quite sure which to pick up next. Enter Bingo, where I needed a book to fill the Gothic Fantasy square. A bit of searching led to The Devil in Silver, which featured the lead involuntarily admitted to a mental institution, with an entire wing secretly occupied by a murderous monster. And that seemed to fit the bill.
The Devil in Silver is labeled as horror, and the one sentence plot description certainly sounds like that of a horror story, but unlike in Black Tom, LaValle doesn’t expend much effort developing the tense atmosphere you’d expect from such a story. The story is indeed horrifying, but it’s not the horror of the supernatural but of the banal. New Hyde Hospital has little oversight, and the staff seems to be checking off boxes rather than investing in the health of the patients. Yes, there is something monstrous in the off-limits corridor, and it absolutely poses a threat to life and limb. But it’s not the point. It’s not a story about a monster, but a story about very real, very contemporary societal failings that happens to be dressed up as a story about a monster.
I can imagine that thwarted expectations have driven some of the negative reviews of this book. Because, while it may not be traditional horror, it’s actually very good at what it does. LaValle dives into the head of Pepper, a middle-aged, working-class man who ends up committed only because of the laziness of others and whose stay is extended in large part due to factors that have nothing to do with him. But while the major villains are external and the portrait of Pepper is largely sympathetic, that portrait also features some glaringly obvious flaws. Pepper is hot-headed and selfish. Even when he’s thinking of others, he’s thinking of how he wants to be seen by them, not of their actual needs. The impulsiveness is common enough, but it’s not often I see that level of unreflective self-centeredness addressed so directly in a protagonist, and it contributes to a lead that feels like he could walk right off the page and get a job at a moving company.
The other major characters are fellow patients, and while they don’t have quite the same “average Joe off the street” feeling, they still make for a remarkably deep supporting cast. And the story? It grabs you without really grabbing you. The plot doesn’t drive forward, pushing towards an inevitable confrontation with evil. Rather, it meanders, with every new chapter bringing more mundane struggles and more evils of apathy and neglect. It’s not the kind of story that means to keep the reader on the edge of their seat, but LaValle’s style is so compelling that it’s hard to put down regardless.
When I finish a book, I jot down a first-impression rating. I often drop my score, once the post-book afterglow wears off a bit. I very rarely raise it, but I did here. The Devil in Silver doesn’t have a climax that delivers that emotional high that I expect at a novel’s close. But it’s a book that gets more impressive the more you think on it. The characters are expertly drawn, the writing is compelling, and the themes are powerful. I would’ve enjoyed a little more build-up of atmosphere and a bit more drive in the plot, but it’s an excellent book regardless. LaValle is going on the list of authors who are always worth a look.
Recommended if you like: well-drawn characters, social commentary, fiction that feels like it could really happen.
Can I use it for Bingo? If we’re counting it as speculative, it would fit the Found Family, Backlist, and Gothic Fantasy (hard mode) squares. But the fantastic elements were so slight that I’m not sure whether it fits on a speculative fiction Bingo card at all. I may pencil it in for Gothic but look for a book to replace it.
Overall rating: 16 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.