We Are Monsters Author: Brian Kirk Publisher: Flame Tree Press Page count: 336 pp Release date: 23rd January 2020 TW:Child Abuse, Mental Illness, Bullying Who is really the monster It’s a question often asked in horror. Just look at a Frankenstein, for starters.
In ‘We Are Monsters’, Kirk explores the complex realm of mental illness, psychiatry, and attitudes towards those suffering with mental health issues. It’s clear that there’s a message here about respect and humanity towards those just trying to get well.Sugar Hill’s criminal forensics ward homes many psychiatric patients, including Crosby, the notorious ‘Apocalypse Killer’. Dr. Eli Alpert, Medical Director at the institute insists the Apocalypse moniker is ignored and Crosby be treated like any other patient. His ethos is that they treat patients with the respect they would expect of themselves, and he’s concerned that Crosby’s primary physician Drexler, apparently doesn’t work that way. And he’s not wrong.
Alex Drexler, after losing a bid to Philax Pharmaceuticals is experimenting on his patients, those incarcerated for paranoid delusions. He has created his own treatment for mental illness and is determined to become successful and rich, at whatever cost. Other characters include Angela, a social worker with Asian heritage, who we gradually learn more about, and Devon, a bully of a guard who likes to incite the patients. .Rajamadja is Eli’s historical spiritual leader, who helped him deal with strong emotions including grief and anger. Interweaving the narrative are snippets of Eli in his previous life with his wife, prior to her death, and scenes of trauma from his time in Vietnam, which occur through the book. In fact, Kirk takes ample time to introduce each character, and to explore hidden issues within the treatment of mental illness; the stigma, the historical poor conditions for patients, and the strain on medical staff. We learn, for instance, of Eli’s Memories of Vietnam War and his PTSD, Alex’s secret pharmaceuticals and Jerry’s connection to Alex, as well as more about Angela’s past and that if the main psychosis patient, Crosby. There’s so much going on here, and I was particularly impressed with Kirk’s apparent medical and psychological knowledge regarding treatments; both past and present. I’m not sure how much Kirk knew before starting this novel, but it’s clear that he’s done his research. I know enough about the area myself to say that it ‘feels real’. Part of the horror in this novel, is the reality of the treatments used for mental illness; submersion therapy, electrocution therapy, the abuse often experienced by patients at the hands of staff and the system. It’s all in here. Something Eli reflects on part way through the book, is the memory of meeting a student after a lecture on humane psychiatry and her observations about financial cost being more of a priority for some.“the industry continued to push antipsychotics as the primary form of treatment.”And that’s the crux of it. Money can be made from drugs. Which is what leads Alex towards his experiments. It’s also apparent that everyone has their own issues, some worse than others, and mental illness can be defined in different ways.
This book reminds me a little of the old Dennis Quaid movie ‘Dreamscape’, in which psychics are used to enter people’s dreams to treat neurosis and nightmares. Plus, a particular Stephen King stormy which I won’t name, as it may lead to spoilers. It has the wonderful quality of classic horror tropes mixed with modern sentiments towards mental health issues and is a complex book that also delivers on the fear front. Though it might seem, odd to say there’s bizzare humour here too. The scene with ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ made me chuckle, whilst at the same time making me wonder if I was being inappropriate in finding the scene funny. The book presents a unique debate on the treatment of mental illness – whilst I’m not sure I have faith in Eli, something he says certainly resonates with me; “Policy is nothing more than an excuse to establish power and control. Power and control breed abuse. They trample compassion. They wilt the spirit.”
There are early hints that something supernatural might be happening, perhaps as a result of Drexler’s tests, but as part two ends, and we enter the third part and the finale, that’s when the proverbial hits the fan. The nightmares we see are visceral, surreal almost hallucinations seen through the eye of a madman. When we see Angela’s particular fear, one I had already suspected – it all becomes very clear how we need to fight and rail against these fears. This is terrific stuff; dark yet as mentioned, comical at times. Like when, in the midst of the finale, Bearman says “Wow, thanks for the topflight leadership, Captain Obvious.” Sarcasm 101 from that obnoxious guy.
It dies become apparent in that third part, that it’s mostly about guilt, actions and consequences; and Alex is particularly vulnerable to those feelings, more so than others.This book is, pardon the pun, pretty mind-blowing. Between the switch in timelines and POV, to the horrific and personal ‘lucid dreaming’, you’re in for a helluva ride.
And a very satisfying, oddly heartwarming ending. A truly unique and powerful book.