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Patrick McGrath Novels March 7, 2010

Posted by lycan librarian in book reviews, Books and reading.
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     Any reader of horror or dark fiction who has not indulged in Patrick McGrath gothic novels is missing a truly gratifying experience. McGrath grew up the son of a Berkshire, England hospital’s chief psychiatrist.  His father’s fierce energy and ebullient enthusiasm for the practice of psychiatry did not turn off when he left the hospital, so a young McGrath absorbed this fascination with extreme mental disturbances. It was immensely fortunate for readers like me that this obsession did not manifest itself within the medical field, but rather in literature.

     My favorite McGrath novel is THE GROTESQUE, a marvelous darkly gothic piece with a murky setting, cruel wit, and heartless humor. It is the story of a master and servant — first, in their original roles, then becoming equal, and then the once-dominant falling to subservience after a crippling accident. The setting is a vivid portrait of English life in a dreary, decaying estate. The sinful pompousness of the upper class is represented in the “grotesque” squashed being who must serve out his sentence in a wheelchair. Ah, but there is, of course, more to this troubling tale than the Lycan Librarian is willing to reveal.

     If you have not read SPIDER, you may have seen the 2002 David Cronenberg film, where Ralph Finnes gifts us with a compelling performance in the role of the adult Spider just released to a halfway house. I would suggest reading the book first, and then running at break-neck speed to obtain and watch the movie, because one gleans necessary  insight into the film for having read the book — enjoying them in the opposite order may result in some confusion while viewing the movie.  Overall, this is a rare case where both book and movie shine.  The disturbing story follows Spider, alternating back and forth between his tragic childhood and a lifeless adulthood. McGrath’s macabre eye for detail haunts both the wretched Spider, and the reader.

     MARTHA PEAKE is the daughter of Harry, a man who displays his deformity for money in pubs when his broken back heals poorly. Martha escapes her father and hides out at the home of Lord Drogo, a brilliant but self-centered doctor who wants Henry’s skeleton for study and display. But, as one would expect of a McGrath novel, insanity finds the man, and the man finds his daughter. She does, physically, finally get away to America, but her legacy crosses the ocean to find her in a sadly brutal way. 

     The above three are my favorite McGrath novels, but there are a few more in the Moonlit Library’s collection, so I will mention those as well. Once you get hooked on McGrath, you will be compelled to read everything the man has produced.

     PORT MUNGO and ASYLUM are the two McGrath novels with the most modern feel of all his books. PORT MUNGO, I daresay, is almost light in tone — especially when compared with his other works.  TRAUMA is a beautifully crafted psychological thriller where a Manhattan psychiatrist uncovers a forgotten personal trauma, and DR. HAGGARD’S DISEASE is a gothic tale of passionate obsession.

     Now for another treat from this talented writer —  a collection of three haunting stories. You don’t have to be a NYC resident to appreciate GHOST TOWN, three tales set widely spaced in time in The Big Apple. The first takes place during the Revolutionary War, and when a young boy fears his mistake has made him responsible for his mother’s death, he curses himself to live a hollow life ruled by festering guilt. The second, a nineteenth century story, is about the son of a wealthy merchant who loves a girl his father views as below the family, and therefore, unacceptable. A harsh turn of events drives the boy to insanity and the father falls into a vortex of guilt. McGrath’s description of the docks in this story stirs all the senses. The sights, sounds and smells of the place are brought  into vital and vivid reality, and pages 124-125 in particular, would make a fabulous study for aspiring writers. The last tale is about the relationship between psychiatrist and patient after 9/11, and leaves the reader wondering which of the two is the most unstable. In all, these three beautifully written pieces show the reader that the times may change, but the task of being human never does. It is this ability of McGrath’s to harness the human faults and frailties of his characters that makes his work so compelling.

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