Fear Is a Place: The psychiatric hospital and horror

From the Seward Asylum in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to Pennhurst Hospital in Stranger Things 4, the psychiatric hospital and horror are inseparable. It was almost inevitable I would one day end up in similar territory. Below, I talk about some of the real life inspiration behind Between the Teeth of Charon, my own contribution to this enduring subgenre.

The image of a sprawling asylum dominating the landscape is a familiar trope to horror fans. Their vastness alone is threatening. Beyond those thick walls and barred windows the seemingly endless network of corridors and cells disorientates, the mandatory amenities – dining halls, theatres, chapels – become strange. Within these dark places lies a madness we hope never to know.

All photographs were taken on a recent walk around Lennox Castle Hospital.

The stories of these places have changed with time. Where once the tales focused on the horror of the individual locked within, we now see more stories exploring the horror of the institution.

The accounts of abuse patients were subjected to is well documented and stretches from the dark ages into recent history. Moreover, some of this abuse was committed under the guise of treatment.

There is a preciseness to the horror of the lobotomy. Imagine the insertion of an orbitoclast – essentially an ice pick – into the eye socket just beneath the eyelid. The instrument would be pushed against the skull, then tapped with a hammer to pierce the bone and penetrate the brain, where the tip would slice into the prefrontal cortex. Lobotomies were carried out indiscriminately and reduced many to docile ghouls, a shadow of the person they once were.

Thankfully in the last few decades the understanding and treatment of mental health has developed significantly, and as a result these once ominous institutions have been left to rot.

Many horror fans will be familiar with the Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts. Cult classic Session 9 was filmed on location at the notorious hospital. The film is filled with lingering interior shots of long corridors dissected by light and shadow, and much of the paraphernalia you see on screen was already there, discarded like the building itself. The reality bleeds into every frame.

Session 9, and subsequently Danvers, was a huge visual influence when writing Between the Teeth of Charon. However, the foundations of Hethpool Grange – the abandoned psychiatric hospital at the centre of Between the Teeth of Charon – lie much closer to home.

The internet is filled with videos and photographs of abandoned psychiatric hospitals, taken by urban explorers who have braved the sickly insides of these decaying beasts to capture their demise. This is how I discovered Cherry Knowle Hospital. Located in Ryhope, a village outside Sunderland, Cherry Knowle stood for over a century before its demolition in 2011. This one was close to home, less than twenty miles from where I grew up. The horror was almost tangible. The first brick of Between the Teeth of Charon was cemented in place with a handful of images of Cherry Knowle.

I first heard of Gartloch Hospital when I moved to Glasgow a few years ago. Fiona and I were driving along some backroads one afternoon, and I caught sight of a building – a tower – through the trees. I asked what it was, learnt it was an old asylum. I pulled off the road and drove up to the hospital. We didn’t leave the car, it was a gloomy afternoon and the hospital was surrounded by metal fencing and construction equipment, but a glimpse was all I needed. I was looking at the administration block, its two tall towers reaching up into the slate grey sky, and it too became a part of Hethpool Grange.

Between the Teeth of Charon was completed in early 2021. However, I recently went for a walk around the site of Lennox Castle Hospital with my camera. There was no reason for me to go. Still, I was compelled by curiosity.

The story of Lennox Castle is a familiar one. Neglect and abuse no one should have to suffer. I read the story of a 14 year old boy, sent to Lennox Castle Hospital because he skipped school. He didn’t leave for another four decades. The hospital finally closed in 2002 and the castle itself is all that remains. 

Imposing. Desolate. Forsaken. The abandoned psychiatric hospital is a liminal place with a sinister magnetism, a place where past horrors collide with present sensibilities, a place where we can glimpse darkness before returning safely to the light.

Between the Teeth of Charon is out Friday. Pre-order it here and add it on Goodreads.

Book Announcement: Between the Teeth of Charon

Last week Kendall Reviews announced Between the Teeth of Charon, my first solo release! It will be published by Demain Publishing with a cover designed by Adrian Baldwin. I talk a little bit more about the story over at Kendall Reviews, but you can see the synopsis and cover below…

Between the Teeth of Charon

After Jack’s wife passes away he is asked by their friend, Ellen, to fulfil a promise his wife made a long time ago. Reluctantly, Jack agrees and, along with Ellen and her granddaughter Dani, the three return to Hethpool Grange – a forgotten hospital in Northumberland – to confront a dark and brutal past. A past Jack has tried for almost sixty years to forget. But there is something waiting for them in Hethpool Grange.

Something which has not forgotten, or forgiven, their sins.

And it is hungry.

The ebook is also up on Amazon for pre-order now!

I’ll be writing a little more about Between the Teeth of Charon in the next few weeks, both here and in my newsletter, so stay tuned.

Story News…

Dog (Does Not) Eat Dog appeared on the Tales to Terrify podcast today. It’s narrated by Anthony Babington and he’s done a fantastic job of bringing the story to life. It was great hearing the story come alive. You can listen to it here.

Whilst you’re there, check out the Tales to Terrify back catalogue – there’s some stellar stories from many great writers.

Back in October last year I entered Crystal Lake Publishing’s monthly flash fiction contest. The theme was ‘Cars’. It progressed to the final round and was lucky enough to be voted a joint winner by their Patreons.

The story was called All We Endure and it appears in Shallow Waters Vol. 8, alongside stories from some of the best writers around. Check out the table of contents and get a copy here.

You can get a copy here for less than a pound. That’s cheaper than a Gregg’s sausage roll, but it’s infinitely better for you and much more filling.

RE:Enter the survival horror…

It’s hard to believe that Resident Evil turns 25 this year. It seems impossible a quarter of a century has passed since Chris, Jill and the other survivors of the S.T.A.R.S. team burst into the Spencer Mansion for the first time.

Many people have fond memories of those opening moments, and indeed the game as a whole. The live action video sequence of the team pursued by a pack of T-Virus infected dogs. The first zombie chewing on the corpse of your fallen teammate, Kenneth. The maze-like layout of locked doors, traps and puzzles…

I recently downloaded the Resident Evil HD Remaster – a convoluted title, it’s a remaster of the 2002 remake, obviously – and finished playing it a few days ago.

The ‘replay’ came with a heavy dose of nostalgia. However, I soon realised (and remembered) it wasn’t a replay for me at all.

I was ten years old when the original was released and I didn’t have a PlayStation. My friend did, but I don’t remember him having Resident Evil. The first game in the franchise he owned was the second, the punchily named Resident Evil 2.

Then, it came to me. Like a remaster of a remake, the reality was convoluted. It was my friend’s, friend’s dad who owned Resident Evil. We would pile into his house and watch him play it as it grew dark outside. My experiences of the game were second hand. I only watched someone play, I never actually played it myself.

This might be why I remember the game having such a cinematic quality. I had no control over the actions, I simply watched it unfold before me.

Playing it again, for the first time, I was struck by how Resident Evil was still as strong as it had been when I was younger.

The sound of your footsteps echoing, or the banal ticking of a grandfather clock broken by a low moan from a zombie off screen, still held power.

The static camera angles – those low shots of long corridors and skewed views from high corners – are claustrophobic and disorientating.

Every time you pass into another room and have to watch a cut scene of a handle turning and a door pushed inward induce seconds of panic and paranoia.

Of course, these things come with problems. It’s impossible to get anywhere fast in the mansion. You run in circles trying to navigate an odd bend. You’ve been through this dining room how many times now? And – oh god – it’s another door I have to watch open. Or you happen to press on the typewriter for the umpteenth time and are told that, if you had an ink ribbon, you could save your progress…

The game is also famed for it’s bad dialogue. It’s littered with odd descriptive phrases too. I happened upon this one of a statue and thought of the struggling novelist who crafted it.

A large statue stands silently in the darkness.

A struggling novelist

Silently. But surely all statues are… *sighs*

I hope they find an agent soon. Or an editor.

Resident Evil isn’t perfect. That said, all of these things add to the game’s nostalgic charm and the effect is transportive.

Interestingly, I found the initial magic began to wear a little thin and I couldn’t help feeling once you move beyond the mansion the beauty, and the fear, waned. For me, that empty mansion is where the game has and always will shine.

Once we’re below ground – in possibly the grubbiest laboratory ever rendered – some of the power from the earlier parts of the game dissipates.

I do wonder if this has something to do with my memories of the original. I remember the Spencer Mansion. The zombies grabbing you. The dogs bursting through windows. The doors. Oh, those doors… Lighting a fire to reveal a map, opening a door with a collection of bizarre objects hidden in bizarre places.

But then, when it comes to the later stages, my memory fades. Perhaps I never saw those later stages of the game, so that nostalgic pull is lessened. Or perhaps I did, only the weakened appeal of the tunnels and lab wasn’t worth remembering.

I suppose it doesn’t matter. What matters is that, after almost 25 years, I finally entered the survival horror and played Resident Evil.

On easy.

Because, deep down, I’m still afraid.

That has to mean something, right?

Stories I Loved 2020…

There wasn’t much to like about 2020. The less said the better. I did however read some great stories. Like last year, I’ve listed my favourites below. You can find the 2019 list here.

Notes: I need to read more novels from independent presses. Not everything on the list was released in 2020 – I’m still behind on a lot of my reading. I’ve only provided links for the short stories and novellas, using links to the presses directly where possible.

I hope you find something to enjoy. Here it is:

Novels

  • Mark Z. Danielewski – House of Leaves
  • Lucy Foley – The Hunting Party
  • Ken Grimwood – Replay
  • Joe Hill – NOS4R2
  • Malcolm McDowell – The Elementals
  • Nic Pizzolatto – Galveston
  • Iain Reid – I’m Thinking of Ending Things
  • Paul Tremblay – A Head Full of Ghosts

Non-Fiction:

  • Derren Brown – Happy
  • Jon Krakauer – Into the Wild

Novellas:

Short Stories:

Finally, if you’re hungry for more story recommendations, take a look at James Everington’s blog. He always puts together a top notch end of year list and his puts mine to shame.