Q&A with Victor LaValle
Q. The Devil in Silver is a haunting novel about a man named Pepper who is mistakenly committed to a mental hospital in Queens, and the saga of his attempts to escape. What inspired such an idea?
A. This book began with a personal incident. Ten years ago someone close to me was committed to a mental hospital in New York. (I'm keeping things vague to protect his anonymity.) On my first visit I found him tied to his bed with restraints. The staff assured me he'd be released soon. On my second visit he was in restraints again. On my third visit, when we were alone, I asked when they took him out of those restraints. He looked exhausted. He said, "They don't."
The plot lines and characters didn't come to me until 2010 but the seed of this novel was planted that day.
Q. Gary Shteyngart has called you the "new master" of "literary horror." What is literary horror?
A. It's a genre full of scares but one where the characters are more important than the gore. The Devil of my title is vitally important, but the people you meet inside the hospital are the novel's true concern. Shirley Jackson has been a real inspiration in this vein because she balanced external horrors and psychological depth with perfection.
I happen to be a lifelong fan of horror movies. In certain kinds of horror films the cast is really just meat meant to be chopped up by the monster. In those flicks, fun as they are, the characters are interchangeable and their deaths rarely mean much. But in another kind of horror film the trials characters face, their deaths, do mean something. We care about them and this makes their fates more frightening. The Devil in Silver is a story like that.
Q. Are you thinking of any movies, in particular, that might have the same tone?
A. For sure. Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby is a classic film and seems like "literary horror" to me. That movie is about a woman who is tricked into bearing a baby for the Devil, but really it's a series of frightening portraits: Of New York City in the late-sixties; of the state of being newly married to someone you can't trust; of the wild New York characters living in one building; and even of the spooky building itself, the vast and haunting Dakota. Trapped within all these circles of strangeness is one sane character, Rosemary. That movie isn't chilling because of the scene where an actor wearing furry gloves climbs on top of Mia Farrow. Instead, it's a great work of horror because we care about Rosemary and want her to be safe despite all the forces allied against her. It's the same for Pepper, and for all the other characters in The Devil in Silver. We want them to be safe. We want them to survive. The horror seeps in as we recognize that not all of them will.