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Pepper is a rambunctious big man, and, suddenly, the surprised inmate of a budget-strapped mental institution in Queens, New York. He's not mentally ill, but that doesn't seem to matter. On his first night, he's visited by a terrifying creature who nearly kills him before being hustled away by the hospital staff. It's no delusion: The other patients confirm that a hungry devil roams the hallways when the sun goes down. Pepper rallies three other inmates in a plot to fight back: Dorry, an octogenarian ...
Pepper is a rambunctious big man, and, suddenly, the surprised inmate of a budget-strapped mental institution in Queens, New York. He's not mentally ill, but that doesn't seem to matter. On his first night, he's visited by a terrifying creature who nearly kills him before being hustled away by the hospital staff. It's no delusion: The other patients confirm that a hungry devil roams the hallways when the sun goes down. Pepper rallies three other inmates in a plot to fight back: Dorry, an octogenarian schizophrenic; Coffee, an African immigrant with severe OCD; and Loochie, a bipolar teenage girl. Battling the pill-pushing staff, one another, and their own minds, they try to kill the monster that's stalking them. But can the Devil die?
They brought the big man in on a winter night when the moon looked as hazy as the heart of an ice cube. It took three cops to wrestle and handcuff him. They threw him in their undercover cruiser and drove him to the New Hyde mental hospital. This was a mistake. They shouldn't have brought him there. But that wasn't going to save him.
When they reached the hospital, everyone got out. The big man refused to walk. The three cops mobbed around him, trying to intimidate, but to the big man they just looked like Donald Duck's nephews: Huey, Dewey, and Louie. A bunch of cartoons. It didn't help that they were dressed in street clothes instead of blue uniforms.
Dewey and Louie walked behind the big man and Huey stayed up front. The big man's hands were cuffed behind his back. Dewey and Louie pushed him like tugboats guiding a barge, one good shove and he floated toward the double doors of the building. The lobby was so empty, so quiet, that their footsteps echoed.
New Hyde looked like a low-rent motel. Bland floral-print cushions on the couches and chairs, the walls a lackluster lavender. There were no patients waiting around, no staff members on hand, not even an information desk. But Huey, the lead cop, knew where he was going. The big man frowned at the décor and the empty seats. He'd thought they were taking him to a lockup. What the hell kind of place was this? He got so confused, his feet stopped moving, so Dewey and Louie gave him another shove.
They reached the far end of the lobby and found a hallway. The cops turned right but the big man went left. It might've looked like an escape attempt except that the big man stopped himself after two paces. So confused he actually turned back to look for them. Huey, Dewey, and Louie were watching him now, to see what he would do. They were relaxed because they knew he could do nothing.
Huey raised his right hand. He wore a chunky silver diver's watch that looked expensive even under the hospital's terrible fluorescent lights. He beckoned and the big man stepped closer to them. It was quiet enough that the cops could hear him lick his dry lips.
Now this guy was big but let's put it in perspective. He wasn't Greek mythology-sized; wasn't tossing boulders at passing ships. He wasn't even Green Mile-sized; one of those human-giant types. He stood six foot three and weighed two hundred seventy-one pounds, and if that doesn't sound big to you, then you must be a professional wrestler. The dude was big but still recognizably human. Beatable. Three smaller men, like these cops, could take him down together. Just to get that straight.
The big man returned to his captors, without a word, and once again they all moved in the same direction.
The hallway was clear and empty, just lavender walls boxing in a thin runway of industrial carpet. But the big man could see that the runway ended at a big old door, heavy like you'd find on a bank vault. Unmovable. This was no Motel Six. His footsteps faltered. But this time the cops weren't going to let him wander off. Dewey yanked that big boy backward, by the handcuffs. His shoulders popped in their sockets and his face went hot with pain.
"Now he's scared," the lead cop said.
They reached the door. A small white button sat in the wall. Huey pressed it and kept his finger on the button. The buzzer played on the other side of the door and sounded like a duck's quack, as if Huey was throwing his cartoon voice.
The secure door featured a window the size of a cereal box. With his finger still steady on the buzzer, Huey peeked through it.
"Just break the glass," Dewey said.
He seemed to be joking, but he hadn't smiled.
Huey clonked the sturdy silver face of his diver's watch against the window. "You couldn't shatter this shit with a bullet."
The big man opened his mouth. He had plans to speak but found no words. He couldn't stop staring at that door. Not wood, not faux wood, fucking iron. Maybe. The damn thing had rivets in it, like it had been torn off a battleship. Bombproof; fireproof; probably airtight, too.
He finally found the words. "This place is locked up tighter than your Uncle Scrooge's vault."
Huey turned away from the door. His eyes brightened with joyful cruelty. "You think these jokes are going to save you, but they're only making things worse."
Louie said, "He's just trying to get one of us to hit him. So he'll have a lawsuit."
Dewey said, "We didn't hit him before, why would we start now?"
Huey said, "You're applying logic to a man who's not thinking logically."
"What the hell does that mean?" the big man asked.
"We think you might be a danger to yourself because of your mental condition," Louie added sarcastically.
The big man's body went rigid. "What mental condition?"
Dewey said, "You attacked three officers of the law."
"How was I supposed to know you were cops?!"
To be fair, the big man had a point. The three men wore plain clothes. Their shields, hanging around their necks on silver chains, were tucked under their different colored sweatshirts. But who cared? Here was one rule you could count on: You were never allowed to punch a cop. So forget about punching two of them, repeatedly, and trying hard to connect with the third. It didn't matter if they were in uniform, wearing plain clothes, or rocking a pair of pajamas.
But before he could get into a debate about the finer points of an entrapment defense, an eye appeared on the other side of the unbreakable window.
Well, a head at least, with a mess of grayish white hair, but the only part they could make out clearly was that eye. The outer ring of the pupil was blue but closer to the iris the color turned a light gray. Cataracts. The other eye was shut because the person squinted. Man or woman? Hard to say, the face was smooshed so tight against the pane. The clouded pupil swam left then right, as alien as a single-cell organism caught under the objective lens of a microscope. It surveyed the big man, and the three cops. It blinked.
The big man frowned at the person in the window. Dewey and Louie unconsciously stepped backward. Only Huey, still pressing the white button, didn't seem startled by the watchful eye. He smiled at the big man, more broadly than he had all night. Relishing what he would say next: "Welcome to New Hyde." He pointed to a plaque embedded in the wall right above the door: NEW HYDE HOSPITAL. FOUNDED IN 1953.
Dewey said, "When can we leave?"
Just then the eye seemed to slip away from the window and another face replaced it. This new person stood farther from the glass so they could make out more of him. A man. Brown-skinned. With puffy cheeks, a soft chin, and a nose as round as an old lightbulb. He wore glasses. A bushy mustache. And a scowl.
They could see his chest, the tie and jacket he wore. An ID card, sheathed in plastic, hung around his neck on a plastic cord.
The big man said, "He wears his ID on the outside, see? That's how people know what his job is."
The three cops sighed with exhaustion. Nine-twenty at night and all three were tired. They just had to hand the big man off and file their reports, then each could finally go home. (To their mother, Della Duck?)
The brown man looked out at Huey, and his gaze followed the cop's arm down as far as it could go, toward that finger, still mashing the white buzzer. The brown man then stared up at Huey again and brought one finger to his lips in a shushing motion. Huey pulled his hand away so quickly, you would've thought the buzzer had just burnt him.
The bolt lock in the door turned, clacking like the opening of a manual cash register's drawer. Then the door opened with surprising ease for its apparent weight. The doorway exhaled a stale, musty smell.
They could now see the brown man fully. His big round face fused right onto his round body. Imagine a wine cask, upright, wearing glasses. Not tall and not fat, just one solid oval.
And yet he must be someone with authority, if he had the keys to open this mighty door. Which was good enough for the big man, who said, "I'm innocent."
The brown man looked up at the big man. "I'm not a judge," he said. "I'm a doctor."
The doctor narrowed his eyes at Huey, who suddenly seemed bashful.
The doctor said, "I didn't expect to be seeing you again."
Huey nodded, looking away from the doctor. But then he seemed to feel the gaze of his partners, and he snapped out of his shame.
"This is legit. He jumped two of my guys."
The big man appealed to the doctor. "I thought they were meatheads, not cops."
The doctor looked at the two cops on either side of the big man. He smiled, which made his bushy mustache rise slightly like a caterpillar on the move. He stepped aside and invited them in. "My team is waiting down the hall," he said, locking the door behind them. "Second room."
The cops led the big man forward. Dewey and Louie holding his arms tighter than before. They didn't like the meathead line. Huey, with the watch, rested one hand on the big man's shoulder and together the quartet followed the doctor.
The room looked like nearly any medium-sized conference room you'll ever find. The walls were an eggshell white, a dry-erase board hung on one of them with the faintest red squiggles half erased in an upper corner. A pull-down screen hung on another wall. In the middle of the room sat a faux-wood table, large enough to seat fifteen, but ringed by only fourteen faux-wood chairs with plastic padded backs. Another ring of cheaper, foldout chairs was placed against the walls. The working class of meeting spaces. All the people already in the room looked as tired as the decor.
Tonight the full intake team was in attendance: a social worker, an activity therapist, a registered nurse, three trainees, an orderly, a psychologist, and a psychiatrist (that was the brown man). These poor folks had been ready to leave at the end of their shift, but then the cops called ahead and said they were bringing in a new admission, so the doctor demanded that everyone stay. The team had been waiting on the big man for two hours. This was not a cheerful group. Ten people, plus three cops, plus the big man. It would be a crowded, grumpy room.
Before the guest of honor arrived, the men and women on staff had sat at the table with notepads and files spread out in front of them, doing busywork for other patients while they waited. Some used cell phones to make notes, or to text, or answer email. The orderly, at the far end of the table, watched a YouTube video on his phone and sagged in his chair.
When the cops brought the big man into the conference room, the staff members leaned backward, as if a strong wind had just burst in. The doctor pointed to a faux-wood chair that had been pulled back from the table about three feet.
"He can sit there."
Huey brought the big man to the chair and unlocked his handcuffs. He then took the big man's right wrist and handcuffed it to the arm of his chair. The staff watched quietly and without surprise. Only the orderly looked away from the scene, replaying the video on his phone.
Once the big man settled, the doctor walked to the open door of the conference room. Somewhere outside the room, farther down the hall, deeper into the unit, buzzing voices could be heard. A television playing too loudly. The doctor pushed the door shut, and the room became so quiet that everyone in it could hear, very faintly, the bump-bump-bump coming from the orderly's cell phone. The tinny thump of music playing over small speakers.
The doctor walked the length of the room and chucked the orderly on the shoulder as he passed to collect a folding chair for himself.
He set his plastic chair in front of the big man and sat down. He smiled and the bushy mustache rose.
"I'm Dr. Anand," he said. "And I want to welcome you to New Hyde Hospital. This building, this unit, is called Northwest."
The big man looked at the other staff members. A few of them managed a New York smile, which is to say a tight-lipped half-frown. The others watched him dispassionately.
Dr. Anand—like the big man, like most of the people in this room—had been raised in Queens, New York. The most ethnically diverse region not just in the United States, but on the entire planet; a distinction it's held for more than four decades. In Queens, you will find Korean kids who sound like black kids. Italians who sound like Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans who sound like Italians. Third-generation Irish who sound like old Jews. That's Queens. Not a melting pot, not even a tossed salad, but an all-you-can-eat, mix-and-match buffet.
Dr. Anand was no stranger to the buffet table, a man of Indian descent who sounded a little like a working-class guy from an Irish neighborhood. He dropped those r's when he wasn't being careful. He sounded like he was talking through his nose, not nasal but surprisingly high-pitched.
The big man wasn't concerned with ethnography just then. He hadn't said anything since crossing the threshold of the big doorway. That's because he wasn't actually there. Only his body filled his chair. The rest of him lagged a little behind. It was still back in the lobby.
The big man knew he should be listening to this doctor. If anyone could explain how soon he'd be released, it must be the barrel-chested Indian dude squatting on the dinky chair right in front of him. But he just couldn't do it. His ears felt stuffed up and his mind fuzzy. He wanted to turn and look over his shoulder, try to find that lagging part of him that would make sense of this moment. He didn't actually move, for fear the cops might pummel him.
"So why do you think you're here?" Dr. Anand asked.
The whole room waited for his answer.
Except for the orderly, who pulled out his cell phone again, muted the device, and tilted his head down toward the screen. He wore the glazed-eyed grin of a man watching something that showed skin.
This book began with a personal incident. Ten years ago someone close to me was committed to a mental hospital in New York. (I'm keeping things vague to protect his anonymity.) On my first visit I found him tied to his bed with restraints. The staff assured me he'd be released soon. On my second visit he was in restraints again. On my third visit, when we were alone, I asked when they took him out of those restraints. He looked exhausted. He said, "They don't."
The plot lines and characters didn't come to me until 2010 but the seed of this novel was planted that day.
2) Gary Shteyngart has called you the "new master" of "literary horror." What is literary horror?
It's a genre full of scares but one where the characters are more important than the gore. The Devil of my title is vitally important, but the people you meet inside the hospital are the novel's true concern. Shirley Jackson has been a real inspiration in this vein because she balanced external horrors and psychological depth with perfection.
I happen to be a lifelong fan of horror movies. In certain kinds of horror films the cast is really just meat meant to be chopped up by the monster. In those flicks, fun as they are, the characters are interchangeable and their deaths rarely mean much. But in another kind of horror film the trials characters face, their deaths, do mean something. We care about them and this makes their fates more frightening. The Devil in Silver is a story like that.
3) Are you thinking of any movies, in particular, that might have the same tone?
For sure. Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby is a classic film and seems like "literary horror" to me. That movie is about a woman who is tricked into bearing a baby for the Devil, but really it's a series of frightening portraits: Of New York City in the late-sixties; of the state of being newly married to someone you can't trust; of the wild New York characters living in one building; and even of the spooky building itself, the vast and haunting Dakota. Trapped within all these circles of strangeness is one sane character, Rosemary. That movie isn't chilling because of the scene where an actor wearing furry gloves climbs on top of Mia Farrow. Instead, it's a great work of horror because we care about Rosemary and want her to be safe despite all the forces allied against her. It's the same for Pepper, and for all the other characters in The Devil in Silver. We want them to be safe. We want them to survive. The horror seeps in as we recognize that not all of them will.
1. Pepper arrives at New Hyde Hospital in handcuffs, led inside by three cops. What are your first impressions of Pepper because of this? What assumptions do you make about him? How long does it take for those initial impressions to change?
2. New Hyde’s psychiatric unit, Northwest, is located in a public hospital in Queens. In what ways does the author overturn or undermine your ideas of what a psychiatric unit will look like and how it will be run? In what ways does he confirm your ideas?
3. During his intake meeting Pepper learns that he’ll be held for observation for seventy-two hours. He reacts badly to this. How do you imagine you might react upon learning that you were trapped within this system? What might you do differently? Do you think it would help?
4. Dorry explains that she makes a point of greeting all newly admitted patients when they arrive at New Hyde. Why does Dorry do this? How would you imagine you would react to meeting Dorry when you first arrived? Why do you think Pepper and Dorry bond in the way they soon do?
5. Though Pepper protests that he isn’t mentally ill he’s still forced to take medication which has a severe effect on him. How did the introduction of the medications affect Pepper’s behavior? Does our society seem too quick to prescribe pharmaceutical drugs these days? What affect might they be having on all of us?
6. Within days Pepper has met most of the other patients. Coffee, his roommate, seems particularly scared of something on the unit. What did you think of Coffee’s fears before Pepper was attacked and then afterward? What did you think of Coffee’s mission to reach someone, anyone, in the outside world who could help? Was he foolish or hopeful?
7. Do the members of the staff—Dr. Anand, Miss Chris, Scotch Tape, Josephine, and the other nurses and orderlies—seem to be trying to harm the patients? Is the mistreatment of the patients intentional? If not, how might the staff be seen as “suffering” inside of New Hyde, too?
8. How did your understanding of the “Devil in Silver” change as the novel progressed? By the end of the novel did you have any sympathy for “the Devil?”
9. Pepper and Sue enjoy a brief but intense love affair while inside New Hyde. How does Pepper’s time with Sue change his character? Did he help Sue, in the end?
10. Why is Vincent Van Gogh referenced so often in this book? How did Van Gogh’s story come to seem important to Pepper? Why was it relevant to the novel as a whole?
11. Whose death affected you most in this novel? Why?
12. Does Pepper ever get out of New Hyde Hospital? Where do you imagine Loochie is now?
Posted August 21, 2012
I love being surprised, and this may be one of the most surprising books
I’ve ever read. When I picked up The Devil in Silver, I was expecting a
traditional horror story set in a mental institution. Technically that’s
what this is, but not in the ways you might be thinking. The Devil in
Silver has horror elements for sure, but there are so many touching
human moments in the story that a reader might easily be fooled into
believing this is literary fiction. But it's so much more than that.
LaValle has created something special by blending complex character
studies and a horrific presence that may or may not be human into one
seamless and engaging story. Pepper is having a bad day. He’s just been
arrested for punching a cop, but instead of being taken to the police
station, the three cops from the altercation bring him to the New Hyde
mental hospital. Once he’s checked in and told he must remain there for
a 72-hour waiting period, Pepper grudgingly accepts his fate and goes
about settling in. But due to some highly potent pills that he is forced
to take three times a day, the 72 hours stretches into months, and
Pepper realizes that in order to get out of the loony bin, he’s going to
have to try to break out. His long days and nights in New Hyde are
filled with getting to know his quirky inmates, including his roommate
Coffee, an older woman named Dorry who greets Pepper when he arrives,
and a young teenaged girl named Loochie who is full of unfocused rage
but hides a vulnerable spirit. The four become partners in crime as they
try again and again to escape the high barbed-wire walls of the
hospital, sometimes with tragic results. But lurking somewhere on the
second floor is a creature who might be the devil, a monstrous man-beast
with cloven hooves and the head of a bison, at least that’s what it
looks like to Pepper. Dorry, Coffee and Loochie have all seen the beast
as well, and whatever it is, it’s dangerous. Pepper and his friends
devise a drug-addled plan to not only escape New Hyde, but possibly kill
the devil before they go. One of my favorite scenes happens late in the
book after a suicide. In order for the police to complete their
investigation, the patients must leave the facility temporarily, so the
orderlies take them on a walk to a nearby pizza parlor. The absurdity of
this scene, where the inmates focus not on the opportunity to run away,
but on the anticipation of eating pizza in a restaurant outside, is a
great example of the irony-filled moments that LaValle scatters
throughout his book. The book is filled with memorable scenes that
really have nothing to do with the “devil” of the title, surprisingly
enough, and are the things I’ll remember most about The Devil in Silver.
At first I thought the introduction of a new character half-way through
was a bad idea, but when Pepper gets together with a Chinese woman named
Sue, LaValle sets up one of the book’s most poignant moments. I won’t
tell you how the story ends, but believe me when I say the ending is
perfect, as the author uses The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh as a
catalyst for Pepper’s redemption. Even the final revelation of the
meaning behind the book’s title gave me goose bumps, and not the scary
kind. My only worry for The Devil in Silver is that it won’t find its
audience. This book deserves all kinds of attention, and I hope the
label of “horror” does not scare off potential readers. Many thanks to
Random House Publishing Group for supplying a review copy.
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Posted September 16, 2012
Today I had the pleasure of finishing The Devil in Silver, a novel by Victor Lavalle. Nominally, it's about a sane man who is admitted into a psychiatric unit for evaluation. To add to his misfortune, the hospital is terrorized by a flesh-eating demon that preys on the patients.
That, of course, makes the book sound like a horror novel. Not a bad thing in itself, but woefully off-base. This isn't a horror novel any more than it's "Girl, Interrupted." This is a story reminiscent of Catch-22; full of pain and loss and idiocy but also humor, self-discovery, and yes, some genuine frights.
I loved the story and the author's style, which often included witty, tangential asides.
I'm going to give this book my highest compliment: this guy can WRITE. Grade A+
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Posted August 23, 2012
I loved every moment with the characters is this story. Although the devil is easy to figure out, the depth of the other patients kept me entranced. I will be recommeding this book to all of my friends....I wish it was a lendable book!
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Posted February 2, 2013
Very surpisng read. Definitely not the traditional horror novel. Excellent!
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Posted November 11, 2012
I actually really liked how the author intertwined everyones life together, especially the rat's POV.
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