Virtual Book Club I
There’s no doubt about it - abandoned asylum buildings can be haunting, ominous places. It is easy for film directors and photographers to use them to manufacture a sense of desolation, decay or even menace. David Bickerstaff’s first person point-of-view footage of a corridor in Vienna’s Narrenturm (‘Fools’ Tower), used in the Wellcome Collection’s 2009 ‘Madness and Modernity’ exhibition, for example, makes chilling viewing for anyone schooled in the visual cues of the horror genre. Yet in the event no-one springs from behind any of the innumerable half-open doors the camera passes; nothing in particular lies behind the prosaic fact that the building is no longer in use.
The hauntedness, then, is largely supplied by our imagination; and our imagination is capacious indeed. The photographs of Christopher Payne , Max Reeves and Ed Ram, to choose three examples of many in this genre, are powerfully evocative. Yet they do not supply the viewer with simple, unmediated insights into asylum life; instead they hold up a mirror to the viewer’s own complex of assumptions (informed or otherwise) concerning what that life must have been like. For someone like the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, “who has worked and lived in such places and seen them full of people”, it is interesting that Payne’s photographs are redolent not only of “the tumultuous life” of asylums, but also “the protected and special atmosphere they offered when…they were places where one could be both mad and safe, places where one’s madness could be assured of finding, if not a cure, at least recognition and respect, and a vital sense of companionship and community”.1
What assumptions about asylum life drive the plot of James Scudamore’s novel Wreaking, set as it is in a (fictional) abandoned asylum? Not “a protected and special atmosphere” but one which saw “a hundred years of blind alleys and advances”:
Hosing patients down. Putting them in comas. Shell-shocked soldiers playing billiards during the first war. Bombs striking the building twice during the second. New and terrifying treatments. The randomised violence of the pre-frontal leucotomy. The chemicals. Thorazine, to make them drool and shake. Lithium, to box them in so tight that there were no more highs and no more lows. The anti-psychiatrists, who decided maybe their patients were on to something after all. A new language of ‘service users’ and ‘cost-benefit analysis’.
Wreaking Asylum - together with its adjunct villa, Ravenant House - is nothing other than the book’s principal character, bearing the imprint throughout of “the thousands of souls who roamed the corridors on continuous playback, greasing the prayer-wheel, charging the place up with anguish” in the heightened imagination of the author. “Personalities altered. Thoughts subject to transubstantiation. Sometimes, as he [the caretaker, Jasper Scriven] walks these corridors, he imagines he can feel them: the vapours, the gaseous remains of burnt-out memories.”
The book does something which Scudamore attributes to a few of its characters: “plot out the building’s darker purposes, filling in the gaps, of which there are many, with the vivid substance of their imaginations”. Lying abandoned, the asylum is a place that seems to have been forgotten, as if deliberately, swept under the carpet perhaps…and yet not entirely so. There is a peculiar magnetism to the place, not only for the novel’s principal characters, but also for parties of teenagers and urban explorers. Perhaps the author’s conceit is that, try as it might, society cannot leave this part of its history alone, cannot relinquish the task of (mis)remembering.
Alternatively (or perhaps additionally), the asylum and the house function as metaphors in the narrative for the traumatic history of Scriven’s family, which is the subject of a parallel willing amnesia. Progressively more light is shed on this history in piecemeal fashion as the narrative develops. This is the engine of the otherwise slow-moving drama. True to gothic form, its principal characters are compelled to keep company with the ghosts of their own past, whether they will or no. It is not at all clear, by the end of the book, whether any of them can successfully escape them.
She arrives at the front door, trying desperately not to join the dots of past and present. There are countless painful changes and deteriorations, countless stumbling blocks tagged with memory. She must resist them, or the house will barge in and mess with her intentions.
1 Christopher Payne, Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals (MIT Press, 2009), page 5.