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Book Review: The Asylum of Dr. Caligari (2017)

In a bizarre confluence of recent acquisitions, my last two book reviews for Diabolique were novels that featured people from real life interacting with fictional characters. Given that things often seem to come in threes, it wasn’t too surprising to find that The Asylum of Dr. Caligari (2017), by World Fantasy Award winner James Morrow, would follow the pattern. Morrow’s story begins in 1914. Protagonist Francis Wyndham is an American amateur painter immersing himself in la vie artiste in Paris. There he meets Picasso, Braque, Rousseau and, most importantly in terms of the narrative, Derain. Derain serves as the conduit that leads to Wyndham’s employment at a psychiatric institution run by Dr. Caligari. While Morrow satirically exploits allusions to the 1920 expressionist masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, his 182-page novel has little to do with the film.

Wyndham secures a post teaching art therapy to a select group of delusional patients at the institution. He soon becomes romantically involved with Ilona Wessels. Ilona is obsessed with spiders, and fancies herself as a sort of arachnid queen. And oh, what a tangled web she weaves. Going mano à mano, or eight legs to two legs, against Caligari, Ilona exemplifies demented female empowerment. Caligari has created a painting that incites and amplifies the war ethic onto those who gaze upon it. The deranged doctor’s basic paint colors are augmented with: “salamander, beetle, toad, slug, bird embryos” but the sorcery is ironically pragmatic. Caligari intends to reap huge financial rewards from The Great War. He has conceived the ultimate indoctrination/propaganda motivator. Patriotism goes zealous to the max. Monetary profit is the warped objective.

Ilona, who delightfully spouts random malapropisms, mounts a psychic artistic counterattack. She devises a metaphysical artwork that steers soldiers to abandon warfare. The painting is hidden on a canvas underneath a copy of Caligari’s odious call to arms. Despite all the sabotage and machinations, the tale is basically ruminations on philosophical topics. Author Morrow sees the impish humor that exists in political and aesthetic theorizing. He is a crafty wordsmith who likes to hone in on poseurs and pretensions.

The Asylum of Dr. Caligari, published by Tachyon Publications, may mislead devotees of the film because of its title. That could be construed as a faux lure. Readers who are fond of wry esoteric musings will not be disappointed.

About Sheila M. Merritt

Sheila Merritt wrote book reviews for Mystery Scene Magazine. For several years, she had contributed reviews, articles and conducted interviews for the Hellnotes.com newsletter. She was friends with a British ghost hunter who happened to be the author of a biography of Boris Karloff. She’s had a brief and embarrassing conversation with Christopher Lee in a department store, but also had a much more relaxing exchange with director-writer Frank Darabont at a horror convention. She became enamored of horror films and dark fiction as a child. Mother didn’t approve of them. The rest, as they say, is history.

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