Asylum is a thrilling and creepy photo-novel perfect for fans of the New York Times bestseller Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.We’re back for the inaugural Halloween Spooktacular with Asylum by Madeleine Roux, or “Why Cheap Horror Flick Thrills Don’t Translate Well to Prose”.
For sixteen-year-old Dan Crawford, New Hampshire College Prep is more than a summer program—it’s a lifeline. An outcast at his high school, Dan is excited to finally make some friends in his last summer before college. But when he arrives at the program, Dan learns that his dorm for the summer used to be a sanatorium, more commonly known as an asylum. And not just any asylum—a last resort for the criminally insane.
As Dan and his new friends, Abby and Jordan, explore the hidden recesses of their creepy summer home, they soon discover it’s no coincidence that the three of them ended up here. Because the asylum holds the key to a terrifying past. And there are some secrets that refuse to stay buried.
Featuring found photos of unsettling history and real abandoned asylums and filled with chilling mystery and page-turning suspense, Madeleine Roux’s teen debut, Asylum, is a horror story that treads the line between genius and insanity.
This one was pretty much a bust across the board. Despite a wonderfully creepy cover and an attempt to ape the success of Peregrine’s vintage photography gimmick, Asylum failed to live up to the expectations set by the former, or the promise inherent in the latter. It’s hard not to compare Asylum to Peregrine, given the obvious influence (aaaaaand the fact that I read them back-to-back), but they actually provide an interesting set of contrasting misses. On the one hand, Peregrine, while ultimately not the tone or genre I was expecting, is competently-written, and delivers well enough on the premise that it eventually settles on. Asylum, on the other hand, is exactly what it says on the tin, but is unsuccessful at achieving literally anything it set out to accomplish, because it is terribly written.
“By far the most controversial of Brookline’s patients was the serial killer Dennis Heimline, known more commonly as the Sculptor. Between 1960 and 1965, he terrorized a small rural community in Vermont. Police estimate that he killed more than a dozen people, earning his name from the grisly way he left his victims posed like statues. One report described the “cold, terrible beauty” of a young woman found “dancing” in the wilds of the White Mountains, her mutilated arms tied to tree limbs high above. The most horrifying crime he committed occurred at a local pub. The victims were posed in various places throughout the bar—some standing, some sitting, and some engaged in a kind of revelry on the dance floor. All held in place by ropes and wires.True story: I actually considered jumping ship from Peregrine to Asylum right around the time I realized that it was going to become X-Men Babies, BUT, after reading through a thirty-page sample of Asylum on break, I sat my ass right back down.
Perhaps more disturbing than the Sculptor himself was the fact that when Brookline closed, no trace of the Sculptor could be found…”
Dan was riveted.
Dan drummed his fingers on the seat, impatient to see where he would be living. The regular dorms were being renovated over the summer, so all the College Prep students were being housed in an older building called Brookline, which his admissions packet had called a “retired mental health facility and historical site.” In other words, an asylum.I was not prepared for the kind of prose Asylum was selling. The writing is so bad, you guys. It’s bad in like every possible way. It’s technically terrible – there’s not a single thought, action, or motivation that goes untold when it should be shown, and oh god there is so much exposition. It’s got terrible pacing and plotting, which ends up shafting the characterization. It’s terribly bland, with no deft wordsmithing or clever turn of phrase to engage you. The research is shoddy at best, and the world-building reads like a child’s conception of the ~scariest thing evarrr~. But worst of all for a horror novel, there’s absolutely no atmosphere. It’s not scary.
At the time, Dan had been surprised to find there were no pictures of Brookline up on the website. But he understood why when the cab rounded a corner and there it was.
It didn’t matter that the college had slapped a fresh coat of paint on the outer walls, or that some enterprising gardener had gone a little overboard planting cheerful hydrangea bushes along the path – Brookline loomed at the far end of the road like a warning. Dan had never imagined that a building could look threatening, but Brookline managed that feat and then some. It actually seemed to be watching him.
Turn around now, whispered the voice in his head.
This isn’t my room. Dan blinked, disoriented. It looked like a cell of some sort, with floors and walls made of heavy gray stone. An operating table covered with a thin, white sheet stood in the middle of the room. In the corner nearest him was a drain—why, Dan could only guess. A small window cut into the top of the far wall was covered by crisscrossing metal bars. But the most unnerving thing about the room was the pair of shackles that were bolted to the wall on the left. At first, Dan had thought they were rusty, but now that he really looked at them, he could see that the dark red stains were far too wet to be rust.It’s that last part that completely breaks this novel. Horror shit lives and dies on its ability to draw you in, to set a mood, and YA horror novels even more so, I’d expect, since they generally can’t rely on gritty shock tactics or explicit gore to bully a reaction out of you. There has to be tension, there has to be suspense, there has to be mystery, or some magical combination of the three for this thing to accomplish its most basic function: scare me. Despite a decent conceptual basis – I mean, hello, haunted mental institution, Asylum just couldn’t accomplish that.
Why do I know this room?
Dan quickly closed the door and started rubbing his arms with his hands to get rid of the chill. He tried to rationalize what had just happened. Had he opened the wrong door by mistake? That would explain it. He was extremely tired and had just taken a wrong turn and ended up at the wrong room. A nightmare room that hadn’t been used in decades.
He checked the door number. 3808.
That was his number. What was going on?
After rubbing his eyes with trembling hands, Dan opened the door again. And there was his room, two desks, two chairs, and two beds, with the sleeping lump of Felix on the nearer one.
Dan stepped in and closed the door. Leaning against it, he tried to catch his breath, coughing from the dust still lodged in his nose and throat. His mind had wandered, that was all. It had wandered far, but now he had it back.
So, ok, not creepy. But there’s still a plot, right? Well, yeah, kind of. Except it’s a really, really thin plot that would probably work better with fewer pages to fill. Even this short-ass novel has too much time for it to handle, I guess, so the book just goes wild with plot threads that end up meaning nothing, at least in this installment, just to run the meter out.
Seriously, there is so much crap in here that doesn’t amount to anything. Entire characters and subplots prove to be extraneous, and I strongly suspect that they’re thrown in there just to function as red herrings, to distract you from the most obvious conclusion by providing a handful of horror movie cliches for you to choose from.
The ultimate conflict only manages to separate itself from the bevy of potential conflicts in the last quarter or so of the novel, and it doesn’t hold the focus of the book long enough to build any tension. We’re swept along from twist to twist in the last few chapters without being made to care. The climax is predictable, given the few possible options, and I think it tries to wrap up the handful of subplots that have been playing out simultaneously, but they don’t come together well at all. The reveal behind the big bad’s motivation – which he is kind enough to monologue for us, by the way – feels contrived, a mish-mash of supernatural and human threat that only seems to serve the backstory delivery method and the ~shocking antagonist reveal~ for our MC.
So, the plot’s a bust, the writing’s a bust, how about the characters? Well, we’re three for three, because they’re shallow caricatures who behave wildly inconsistently and get shortchanged by the narrative. Our protagonist, Dan, is really young-sounding – again, we’re talking like middle-grade writing level here – and his romance with love interest Abby is just shoved in there and barely developed. Jordan, the third bff, contributes absolutely nothing to the main plot, and both side characters actually have Distracting Subplots That Go Nowhere. Abby’s, at least, gets a resolution, even if its significance is never made clear, but Jordan’s subplot is terrible, eating up a shitload of page-time before disappearing when it’s time to end the book, with no explanation whatsoever. I assume it’s mostly if not all set-up for the sequel, but, as with the rest of the novel, the execution is shiiiiiiiiiiiiiit.
I guess I should at least mention that Abby his Hispanic and Jordan is gay, but honestly they get so goddamn little to do here, that cookie might be best left in its wrapper.
So, bad characters, bad writing, bad plot, what’s left? OH YEAH, the gimmick. That couldn’t possibly also be tacked-on and (word of the night) extraneous, could it?
As if to confirm his suspicion, a pair of rusted, broken spectacles hung from a hook on the other side of the cabinet. He reached out to touch them, then stopped. There were fingerprint streaks on the wall behind the glasses, like someone had hung them up with a bloody hand.If you thought Peregrine’s creepy photography was shoehorned in, Asylum’s is ten times worse. The photos don’t add anything, they aren’t important to the plot, and often times they don’t even match the situation being described. They also don’t have the benefit of being actual vintage photographs, just stock photos slapped together to vaguely match a couple of scenes and items. They’re not really creepy on their own or in context, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole thing was just thrown in after the novel was already in the pipeline.
“No way,” Abby breathed. “A secret passage? Is this for real? How did you know to look here?”
“The spectacles,” Dan said, pointing to the hook and the glasses.
Abby looked at the streak marks, shuddered, and then seemed to collect herself.
So yeah, I mean, this book was kind of a failure, and I’m a little sad about it. It’s not creepy in the least – I read this shit at two in the morning, in a dark room, curled up in bed by myself, a PRIME TARGET, and felt nary a shiver or flutter. It’s like being told about a low-budget horror flick by a friend over lunch – there’s no atmosphere, no tension, and a plot that only makes the vaguest of sense. The writing just can’t support the idea, and it’s a shame, because the idea was cool.
Welp, that’s two swings and misses with YA. Let’s see if the adults can do any better.