Upon the publication of Blood and Water and Other Tales in 1988, Patrick McGrath was hailed as the Edgar Allan Poe of the 1980’s, a postmodern gothicist whose stories of sex and guilt combined grotesquerie and campiness, the literally appalling and the deliciously excessive, in equal measure. In “The Black Hand of the Raj,” for example, a hand sprouts from the head of an Englishman in the Indian Civil Service and, before the eyes of his fiancé, strangles him. The novels that have followed (there has also been the 1991 anthology The New Gothic co- edited with Brad Morrow) evidence a turning away from the outrageously extravagant and gleefully parodic earlier tales to a mode of storytelling less overtly over-the-top, a mode that is leaner, more exacting, and better suited to developing the author’s twin interests “in the dark and hidden areas of human nature and how they have been represented in fiction.” This change in style appears as early as The Grotesque (1989), becomes more evident (which is to say, less visible, more deceptively transparent) in Spider (1990) and Dr. Haggard’s Dream (1993), and attains perfection in Asylum, McGrath’s most recent, as well as his most elegant and mesmerizing, narrative sleight of hand.
In Asylum, McGrath draws extensively on his childhood years at Broadmoor, an institution for the criminally insane where his father was superintendent and where many of England’s most disturbed and violent murderers were kept. The parallels between the author’s life and his fiction would, in an earlier age, have kept legions of psychoanalytical critics and other Freud-besotted readers looking for “deep meanings.” The postmodern reader sallies forth on a rather different paper chase in which Freud is only one of several intertextual frames of reference and in which the psychoanalytical is merely one explanatory system, or mode of representation, among many. Not that this, or indeed any other, aspect of the novel’s postmodernism is quite so evident, least of all at first. The world into which both the novel’s reader and its main character step is that of an unnamed maximum security hospital in an unidentified area somewhere in the south of England. “A walled city” rising “to dominate the surrounding country,” the hospital follows “the standard Victorian linear model”: “This is a moral architecture, it embodies regularity, discipline, and organization.”
Stella Raphael embodies something quite different. Both parents now dead (her father was a diplomat who was disgraced in a tantalizingly unspecified scandal), Stella is married to Max, a man whom she had married when barely out of her teens and who soon lost interest in her body, a body that even now, a dozen or so years later, is still quite attractive. (There is, incidentally, no evidence that he ever had any interest in her mind or even suspected she had one.) As Max begins his duties as the hospital’s newly appointed deputy superintendent, Stella begins to feel the full weight of her loveless marriage now that she is far away from the diversions of London. Despite her demure yet curvaceous facade, Stella is a veritable cauldron of simmering passions. Are the passions perhaps only delusions? More disturbing still: Is the cauldron a cartoon? Is Stella more Lady Chatterley or Madame Bovary—or a French Lieutenant’s Woman who has wandered into a Harlequin (or Mills and Boon) Romance written by H. P. Lovecraft? Rather than play the part she has been assigned—deputy superintendent’s dutiful, self-effacing wife, a role for which she appears singularly ill- suited—Stella “jeopardizes everything” (including the prospect of someday assuming the position of superintendent’s dutiful, self-effacing wife) without quite understanding why. She becomes sexually involved with one of the hospital’s patients (alternately, inmates) whose escape she unwittingly abets and with whom she eventually, if briefly, lives as mistress and model before reluctantly rejoining her husband at his new posting in northern Wales. Once there, she makes no effort whatsoever to play the wife, to disguise her dislike of her husband or her sexual relationship (it is hardly an “affair”) with the landlord, a coarse farmer, or to even save her ten-year- old son Charlie from drowning. It is this last bit of terminal indifference that leads to the novel’s penultimate twist: Stella’s return to the hospital, this time as patient (the lone voluntary admission) where, as she may or may not know, Edgar has been reconfined.
Like starry-eyed Stella, husband Max is also archly named. Stooped, cautious, and undersexed, he is more “min-” than “max-,” a weak, merely competent administrator who goes about his hospital duties while missing the growing pathology in his own marriage. With his deep “affection for all things Victorian,” he begins the rehabilitation of the deputy superintendent’s house and its dilapidated conservatory. Max’s “ambition was to tame and cultivate both the hospital and the estate, make them over as his twin gardens.” Max does none of the work himself; he supplies the idea while others supply the labor. Neither does he realize, secure in his paternity as well as his paternalism, that where there is a garden, there must also be a snake. This is Edgar Stark, the artist who had murdered his own wife five years before in a jealous rage...