WE ARE MONSTERS By Brian Kirk
Flame Tree Press, s/b, £9.95
Reviewed by Matthew Johns
A dark psychological thriller set within a mental asylum (a classic setting for anything dark and psychological), Kirk’s latest work explores themes of insanity (obviously), forgiveness and healing.
Sugar Hill mental asylum is well known for helping the mentally ill – run by Dr Eli Alpert, he takes a holistic and gentle approach with his patients. Eli has had a life tinged with tragedy – a Vietnam veteran who was forced to kill by a psychotic sergeant, he lost the love of his life to cancer before they were able to marry, but he managed to turn his life around thanks to a mysterious guru in India. His senior staff all have their own dark pasts and secrets – his protégé, Dr Alex Drexler is secretly working on a cure for schizophrenia. Driven by a need to prove himself worthy to his parents, and to cure his mentally ill brother, Alex takes more than a few shortcuts and works without Eli’s knowledge to test the drug with the aim of selling it to a pharmaceutical company. Their best social worker, Angela, has low self-esteem and outside of the asylum lives a wildlife of alcohol and one-night stands. And of course, it wouldn’t be a mental asylum without a sadistic orderly that enjoys bullying and beating up the patients, as well as being generally threatening and unpleasant overall.
Sugar Hill has just had a very notorious patient admitted – Crosby Nelson, aka the Apocalypse Killer. A man who claimed he could see shadows that were demons inside people, and had to kill those with the shadows to defeat Satan’s forces. He believes that he’s fighting for God to prevent the end of the world.
Eli seems to be gradually losing his grip on his sanity as well as the hospital. The board of the hospital are planning to replace him with Alex and to introduce Alex’s new cure into their patients. To pre-empt this, the head of the board makes Alex test his new cure on the Apocalypse Killer, and parades the newly allegedly cured killer in front of Eli and the rest of the board to prove that Alex should replace Eli. Unsurprisingly, things begin to go very wrong at this point, and those within the hospital are plunged into their own personal hells where they must face their past and the demons that haunt them.
Kirk builds suspense steadily throughout the novel, slowly revealing the murky and often tragic pasts of the main players, questioning just what insanity is. If two people claim to talk to God, why does one get locked away in an asylum, while the other is lauded as a priest? What if those patients in the asylum are actually telling the truth about what they see and hear, and that curing them could unleash something terrible upon the world?
The author paints a very bleak picture of the asylum, but hooks the reader with his prose, getting them emotionally invested into the characters and sucking them into the dark world of the Apocalypse Killer. This is a gripping thriller, showing that we all have monsters inside, but that perhaps the only way we can be healed is to begin by forgiving ourselves.