The Cambridge Geek

The Asylum of Dr. Caligari - James Morrow

Francis Wyndham, a struggling artist, finds himself looking for patronage in the latter days of 1914, and discovers it in the form of Dr. Caligari. Caligari is the head of a mental institution, who heals his patients through hypnotism, making them think they're someone who is incompatible with their troublesome habits.

That's not his only aim though, as he's also hoping to bring a bit of useful funding to his organisation by using his talents to help all the armies of the world inspire love of war, "kriegslust", into their soldiers. He's doing this with a great work of art, into which he's poured his hypnotic powers, and past which both sides of the war march their forces.

Into this effort, Wyndham comes, and begins his art therapy classes for Caligari's collection of patients. We've got chess-obsessives, alien warlords and Ilona, who thinks herself a Spider-Queen, and with whom Wyndham begins something of a romantic relationship, as part of an unusual cure for her arachnophilia.

Discovering Caligari's horrible goals, Wyndham decides that the course of war must be changed and attempts to stop him, enlisting the aid of Ilona, who has sorcerous gifts of her own, and his class of misfits. Which sets us up nicely for a combination fantasy heist and gentle comedy.

It's written in a style that matches a certain historical period, feeling something like War of the Worlds, with a steady, dry, but witty voice, giving a wry eye to the ludicrous happenings. It begins with a slight twist on the classic "don't go up to the castle" warning (replace castle with asylum), and is very aware of the historical film roots from which it has sprung.

The style comes through in the voice of Wyndham, who has a rather supercilious tone, matched well by Caligari, who has a great hatred for both Freud and homeopathy - to quote "Homeopathy has everything going for it except validity and results".

The silliness continues throughout, with such "cures" as women who are diagnosed with excessive sexual desire hypnotised to think they are sisters in a religious order. These nunphomaniacs apparently go on to live fulfilling lives.

But the comedy is hung onto a strong plot, with potent characters to drive it along. Caligari is bombastic, full of life and an excellent villain, whereas Ilona fits the part of the mad but brilliant heroine perfectly. It is mostly her story, with the other madmen playing the part of a Greek chorus.

The style is a delight, and the story kept me gripped. It's a good read, and I may have to hunt down more of Morrow's work.

Score 4

Tagged: Book Fantasy Spooky object Novella Print