#21 = Asylum by Madeleine Roux

asylum cover

ASYLUM by Madeleine Roux

jacket flap blurb

Once you get in, there’s no getting out.
For sixteen-year-old Dan Crawford a summer program for gifted students is the chance of a lifetime. No one else at his high school gets his weird fascinations with history and science, but at the New Hampshire College Prep program, such quirks are all but required.
Dan arrives to find that the usual summer housing has been closed, forcing students to stay in the crumbling Brookline dorm—formally a psychiatric hospital. As Dan and his new friends Abby and Jordan start exploring Brookline’s twisty halls and hidden basement, they uncover disturbing secrets about what really went on here…secrets that link Dan and his friends to the asylum’s dark past. Because it turns out Brookline was no ordinary psych ward. And there are some secrets that refuse to stay buried.
Featuring haunting found photographs from real asylums, this mind-bending reading experience blurs the lines between past and present, friendship and obsession, genius and insanity.

thoughts
Let’s begin by setting the scene. Dan (short for Daniel) is the adopted son of some people with a different last name. He kept “Crawford” because that’s what he’s always had, and he was adopted as a teen (or possibly slightly before double-digits). He has never wondered about his birth parents.

And Dan has some sort of wacky mental issue where he suffers from semi-frequent dissociative episodes where he acts normal (presumably) but can’t remember anything about them later. He’s also an introvert, which brings up the first major problem with this book: characterization.
Dan’s “introversion”/“social shyness”/“social anxiety” or whatever it is he’s meant to have is pretty much a joke. There are some instances where he feels awkward in public forums of various kinds, such as with his new friends, in the lunch room, his classroom, etc etc. But mostly it serves no point, plot-wise, and it actually contradicted at times during the plot.

Like with his new friends, Abby and Jordan. Abby is his love interest, and Jordan is the “other friend.” He met and bonded with Abby on the bus they took to get to the College Prep program, and Abby closer to him than Dan is. But no worried, love-triangle-fearers, Jordan is gay.
And yes, there actually is a plot reason for this that is not guys-and-girls-cannot-be-friends angle. You see, Jordan’s parents don’t actually know he’s at this summer program. They think he’s at some other program, somewhere else in the country, getting de-gay-ified. So, quite naturally, Jordan is afraid of getting kicked out. But besides adding conversation fodder (again and again and again), this fear is never developed in any real way.

When Dan and Abby explore the Forbidden Zone (my name) of Brookline and Jordan doesn’t want to go—because he risks expulsion followed by parental tantrums —the three of them argue and Jordan eventually gives in and goes with them. This happens every time they go or talk about going to the Forbidden Zone. In fact, the vast majority of conversation in this book revolves around Abby and Jordan arguing about something and Dan trying to mediate while also not insulting Abby, because she’s his love interest.
The dialogue basically sucks.

Other characters that contradict Dan’s social phobia-ness = his roommate, Felix; Jordan’s roommate, Yi; one of his teachers, Professor Reyes; and various other individuals Dan talks to without any trouble whatsoever. No physical symptoms, no mental symptoms, no nothing. Basically, there is nothing wrong with Dan, but there is an overwhelming feeling that the author wants there to be something wrong with Dan—besides the dissociative episodes, I mean.

So, yeah, character-wise, it feels like it’s written for a younger audience than it’s actually targeting.

Then there’s the plot. The plot is confusing. Apparently, the last warden of Brookline was an ancestor of Dan Crawfords. This warden was also named Daniel Crawford, and he was a megalomaniac freak who did awful shit to his patients deep in the underground bowels of the asylum.
One of his patients was a little girl named Lucy. She happens to be Abby’s aunt, a fact neither Dan nor Jordan initially believe. I don’t know why they don’t believe it, because it seems perfectly reasonable; Abby had an aunt who was “sent away” as a child, Lucy’s date of birth and date of admission match up, and Lucy has Abby’s last name. Also, Abby’s middle name, Lucy, came from her aunt.

So there’s really no reason for Dan or Jordan to disbelieve her. But they do. I suppose because the author was tired of writing the same conversations over and over and decided that the three of them need to split up for a while. Or perhaps she split them up to show that insta-friendship is not without it’s hardships. Or something. I don’t know, but it felt forced.

Another patient was Dennis Heimline, a serial killer known as the Sculptor. Interestingly, when Dan, Abby, and Jordan go down into the Forbidden Zone and find a bunch of old patient notecards, Dennis’s is one of the ones they read. They also read Lucy’s, which is how Abby knows the dates match up for Lucy to be her aunt. But anyway, while most of the notecards list “Homicidal: Y” and “Recovered: N”, Dennis’s notecard lists “Homicidal: Y” and “Recovered: Y”.

This is an intriguing fact that is never elaborated on. In fact, quite the opposite. What happens is, Dan blacks out more and more. He keeps getting these semi-creepy letters written in Warden Crawford’s handwriting (side note: one of these letters said, I’m paraphrasing, How do you kill a hydra? / You cut out its heart. This is “scary” because one of the teachers called Dan, Abby, and Jordan “the Hydra” when they came in late to class one time. It’s never elaborated on). He also keeps having these weird hallucinations/dreams where he is Warden Crawford.

During one of Dan’s blackouts, a man named named Joe who is tasked with keeping kids out of the Forbidden Zone, something he is spectacularly bad at, is killed and posed. Almost like the Sculptor had come back and done it. Of course, the police don’t think a dead serial killer had anything to do with it.

And here is where we learn that Dennis’s body was never found! And some townspeople don’t believe he’s actually dead! More on this later.
The police then arrest some random dude who had, in his possession, a bloody garrote that matched as the murder weapon. We never find out how he got it, but he’s not actually the killer. Oh, no. Nothing so mundane. What’s actually going on is that Felix is being possessed by Dannis. Felix, Dan’s wacky roommate. This isn’t totally out of the blue. When we first meet Felix, he’s very organized and he has a stiff way of speaking. He’s not the sort of person you’d imagine has a lot of friends, and he’s not the sort of person you’re likely to want as a roommate.
But then, Dan notices Felix has been working out. He does various exercises in their room. He goes on runs. He advises Dan to take it up as well, because he says it makes him feel more energized. Now, this is odd, but not noteworthy, because it seems just like something Felix would do. But, in hindsight, I think it’s supposed to be foreshadowing.

Now, about the possession. We come to realize Dan’s being possessed, at times, by Warden Crawford. This is presumably because of the Warden’s connection to Dan. But why did Dennis pick Felix? Was Felix doomed because he was unfortunate enough to be Dan’s roommate? Did Felix have some relation to Dennis? Who knows. And why, in the end, was Dan able to shake off Warden Crawford and emerge unscathed while Felix went crazy after his possession by Dennis?

And why (coming back to Dennis) did the author bring up the idea that Dennis might not be dead if she wasn’t planning on doing anything with it? As a red herring, it was unnecessary. She was writing a horror story about an asylum that once housed a serial killer and now somebody’s died—obviously the reader’s gonna think, “oh, Dennis’s ghost?” or “oh, Dennis didn’t die?” Red herrings are supposed to be distractions. They aren’t supposed to feel like dangling plot lines that didn’t get cleaned up during revision.

Also regarding the end: the climax revolves around a historical scene in which Warden Crawford is preparing to cure (somehow) Dennis before an audience. Dennis is strapped down on the operating table. Various nurses and doctors are watching. And then the police come in and break it up and the Warden is arrested and Dennis goes missing. In the climax, Dennis!Felix reverses the scenario. He straps down Dan on the same operating table in the same room. Abby is also captured and strapped down near by. But before Dennis!Felix can go to work on Dan, Jordan saves the day by turning off the lights and unstrapping Dan and Abby. Then Dan and Abby manage to subdue Dennis!Felix.

My main issue with this scene is that card way back at the beginning of the book. It listed Dennis as “Recovered: Y”. But if Warden Crawford had already cured Dennis, then why was he about to cure him in front of the audience?

And then, and then, at the very end, Dan gets another note. At this point, he’s been assuming Felix gave him all the notes—something that Dennis!Felix somewhat confessed to. And at this precise moment we realize the book is not, in fact, a standalone. So I suppose the author put in all that weird stuff with Jordan (like the photograph of Jordan, Abby, and Dan in Jordan’s room where Jordan scratched out Dan’s face, and then Jordan’s increasing obsession with some unsolvable math problem) so she’d have something to do in the next book.

But when I was reading this book, I was expecting it to wrap up at the end. Until that note came, it was wrapping up at the end. It wasn’t the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone where he still has to defeat Voldemort and crap. The story was over. Besides Jordan’s weirdness, which felt more like crappy characterization than anything else, there’s nothing more to do.

The only truly good thing about this book is the setting. Brookline is so cool.

rating out of five stars
★☆☆☆☆

is it worth reading?
I wouldn’t re-read it, but was engaging enough to finish.

want to read it for yourself?

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