THE DEVIL IN SILVER by Victor LaValle is a frightening novel. It is not frightening in the sense that things jump out at the poor souls who populate the book, though there is a touch of that within its pages. What makes it such an unsettling, wild night’s ride is the manner in which things slowly fall apart, and then further deteriorate once the pieces hit the ground.
"Anyone who has found themselves suddenly and inexplicably at non-liberty in an institutional setting will find their flesh quietly crawling as they read THE DEVIL IN SILVER. And so will everyone else. This is as frightening a book as you are likely to read this year."
A 42-year-old man named Pepper is front and center in THE DEVIL IN SILVER. Pepper is a big guy, who works at a job designed for an individual with a strong back and limited intellectual capacity. Pepper fits the bill for that type of job, and it is precisely those qualities that get him into trouble. One evening, Pepper defends the honor of a woman named Mari --- when asked if Mari is his girlfriend, Pepper answers that “it’s early yet” --- with physical force. Some plainclothes police respond; Pepper, believing that they are civilians (“meatheads,” in his vernacular), resists their interventions and finds himself hauled off to an understaffed, under-budgeted, and badly out-of-date mental hospital in Queens with the cryptic name of New Hyde. Pepper may not be the sharpest blade in the drawer, but he knows one thing that the police, doctors and orderlies do not: he doesn't belong there.
Pepper finds himself in an involuntary 72-hour hold in the facility and quickly learns that he is not the only resident of New Hyde who does not belong there. On his first night there, he makes the nearly homicidal acquaintance of a strange and extremely dangerous creature with an old man’s body and an animal’s head. The encounter has a nightmarish quality to it, but Pepper quickly learns from the other New Hyde inmates that the creature is all too real, a devil who haunts the halls of New Hyde at night. Pepper, for all of his problems, is an interventionist. If, in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, Pepper rules New Hyde, at least during the day. He enlists the aid of a trio of his fellow patients who are by turns variously afflicted and talented in an effort to kill the murderous devil once and for all. But how do you kill something that cannot be killed? Isn’t that crazy? Or does it make Pepper the sanest individual inside or outside of New Hyde?
THE DEVIL IN SILVER is not a horror novel, as that term has come to be defined. It relies not on gore but rather upon a quiet literary turn of style to set up an atmosphere that becomes incrementally chilling as the book progresses. It slowly becomes clear that while Pepper may not belong in New Hyde, he will certainly meet the classical criteria for being mentally ill if he does not get out of there quickly. And what of his fellow patients? Did they begin the same way as Pepper did, innocents (or relatively so) who found their way into its walls by accident or design?
Anyone who has found themselves suddenly and inexplicably at non-liberty in an institutional setting will find their flesh quietly crawling as they read THE DEVIL IN SILVER. And so will everyone else. This is as frightening a book as you are likely to read this year.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 5, 2012