Inside the Asylum by Mary SanGiovanni
Publisher: Lyrical Underground | Release Date: May 7, 2019 | Pages: 192 pages
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Occult specialist Kathy Ryan returns for her third outing in Mary SanGiovanni’s latest, Inside the Asylum. And yes, I know, the publisher consider this to be the second official Ryan novel, despite her being introduced and playing a central role in 2016’s Chills. As far as I’m concerned, this is book three. And whooboy, do things ever get crazy!
Things are starting to bleed over from the other side, warping our reality, and at the center of it all is Henry Banks, an inmate at the Connecticut-Newlyn Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Henry has a special gift, and a rich imagination, which is now causing all sorts of problems for the hospital. Inmates who know of Henry’s friends — his special friends, that is, the ones the doctors and staff think are imaginary — are being brutally murdered, but that’s just the start of it. Henry’s friends are tulpas, and they want not only to be free, they want to be alive, and the stronger they get the more Henry’s imagined world crosses over with ours.
Readers who have been following Ryan since the beginning, that is to say since Chills, will likely recognize the Connecticut-Newlyn Hospital for the Criminally Insane as the institution that houses her serial killer/cultist brother, Toby. In fact, it was this particular aspect that had me most interested in Inside the Asylum. I’ve been wanting to know more about and see more of the Ryan’s sibling rivalry, and the more personal elements of Kathy’s history and her relationship to Toby are some of this book’s strongest elements.
SanGiovanni is certainly no slouch when it comes to the supernatural either. Henry’s tulpas are both highly intriguing and fantastical, but at some points it did get to be a bit much for my tastes. As Henry’s dream world enmeshes with our own, SanGiovanni describes simple everyday object changing into demonic beasties, and it reminded me a bit too much of the climax to Michael Bay’s first Transformers movie, when a shard of the AllSpark started changing random electronics into psychotic robots. We even get a familiar riff of this with a demonic soda machine! SanGiovanni goes a step further, though, giving us an evil rake, a monstrous couch, and a sentient, walking end table. Some of this stuff got to be a little too fantastical for me, even in a story about duplicitous, murderous invisible friends. It’s also a blessedly minor bit of silliness in a story that otherwise plays it straight. When it comes to the killer occult elements and the blending of worlds, SanGiovanni presents a number of terrific flourishes, particularly in the book’s latter half when Inside the Asylum grows into a siege story.
Where Inside the Asylum really shines, though, is its characters and their interactions. Beyond Kathy and Toby, we get a vivid portrait of Henry and the traumas he’s suffered. His tulpas are a direct response to the trials he’s faced in his young life and a reaction to his outsider status, and ultimately he shares much the same goal as his creations, which is to simply be allowed to exist. A certain romanticism is at play there, and even if it does eventually go completely awry you can’t help but feel a bit of sympathy for Henry and the psychological damage that’s led him to all this. Toby, too, reveals some hidden depths and his interactions with Kathy shows there’s room for further exploration given the man’s uniquely twisted emotional filters and psychological wiring.
Kathy and her unusual career have plenty of future potential as well, and I’m looking forward to exploring more horrors with her as the guide. This is a series that has some wonderfully strong legs to it, and with some of the seeds being planted here, I can’t help but hope SanGiovanni and Kensington are able to get a few more books’ worth of mileage out of it all. There’s still plenty more stories to be told and all sorts of crazy worlds to explore, on this side of the door and beyond.