It is the summer of 1914, and after being thrown down the stairs by Picasso, down-on-his-luck artist Francis Wyndham accepts a job working as an art therapist at Europe’s most celebrated mental institution, the Traumenchen Asylum in Wizenstaat. But he has barely stepped off the train before a florid stranger is already warning him about his new employer, the brilliant psychotherapist and – if the rumours are correct – sorcerer, alchemist and occasional Resurrectionist Dr. Alessandro Caligari.
Very bad things are happening in Dr. Caligari’s asylum, and Francis quickly begins to suspect that the reasons lie in the enormous painting Caligari is working on in his secret lair – a painting so supernaturally hypnotic that it will inspire entire regiments to go to battle, that Caligari believes will make him his fortune. Only Francis and his beautiful but disturbed student Ilona, the self-styled Spider Queen of Ogygia, can thwart Caligari’s nefarious scheme, but to do that they must first create a magical work of their own. And time is running out. Archduke Franz Ferdinand has just been assassinated, and the world is already teetering on the brink of war…
Fans of Robert Wiene’s silent-film classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari will love this novel. It’s a rich and wonderful mash-up of political satire, psychological fairytale and German Expressionist horror story, with a touch of sci-fi thrown in for good measure. Author James Morrow has created this tale with obvious respect and affection for Wiene’s 1920s masterwork, and he has performed that neat trick of staying absolutely true to the original concept while shooting it off into a direction that makes it entirely his own. There’s a gorgeous edge to Morrow’s writing, a sense of fun and irreverence that never detracts from the dark jeopardy at the heart of the story but which keeps the whole mad adventure chugging along at a rate of knots, and the tension and suspense he manages to build up in the final third of the book is quite extraordinary. Even the last page pulls a sly punch, and leaves you thinking and wondering about the story long after it’s finished. This is the kind of sequel that makes you wish for a time machine, because if Wiene had put Morrow’s novel in front of the cameras the results would have been sensational. An unputdownable read, in all the best senses of that word.
THE ASYLUM OF DR. CALIGARI / AUTHOR: JAMES MORROW / PUBLISHER: TACHYON PUBLICATIONS / RELEASE DATE: 20TH JUNE