When the music stops from John T. Fuller
Originally I wanted to choose a ghost story for this spooky post, but all the ghost books I read recently was Christmas stories, so they do not really fit in the Halloween season. Then it occurred to me that I’ve read a book with a story taking place in an asylum. And an asylum is by definition spooky, not to mention the end of 19th centuries setting and atmosphere. Add to this mix the Victorian era with its strictly religious, God fearing beliefs and you will find yourself in a horror movie set.
Thus this story is not a horror story, it’s far from it, but then again not easy going either. It’s frightful at best, as you wander the long and dark corridors of the Link Hill Insane Asylum following Dr Daniel Archer during his long work-hours. If you frighten easily – like me – I recommend reading this book with all the lights on.
I can vividly imagine scenes during reading, so sometimes I was scared speechless when the patients of the asylum were running for the cells’ doors trying to freak the doctors out or attacking them making their escape through their bodies. I had some idea concerning the living and work environment of these asylums, but looking at the patients, their living conditions, experience their treatments through the eyes of one of the doctors instead of reading articles about them, is certainly enough to give anyone the spooks.
Speaking of strange and scary settings, the narration too is odd and strange in this book. Or shall I use the word uncommon? Usually we’re accustomed to a narration in past tense or a mix of past and present tense. What we get in this book is present tenses only. When reading the story I felt myself one of the asylum’s staff. With the all out presents it was like I was constantly standing behind Dr Archer observing his every move.
When he walked the dark corridors, I could hear the click-clack of his shoe heels, and when he turned in the direction of some noises I could feel the observing stares of the patients. And with the perma-present tenses we have a timely feedback of his feelings and ways of thinking. It’s like we’re continuously reading his thoughts even if the narration is in 3rd person view.
Dr Archer’s world and work is a monotone one, his days are filled with the care for his patients and his religious will to help, until a new patient, the mysterious mister White is admitted. He doesn’t speak (therefore he’s considered mute) and usually unresponsive to people, generally the world around him. Even though his real name is not Mr White, it’s a name the doctors had chosen for him, like for every patient unable to tell their own.
He doesn’t speak; they never knew his name. It’s the case for a lot of the patients at Link Hill, they are re-christened by the staff: Mr. Smith, Mr. Brown, Mr. Black.
Due to the direct connection into Dr Archer’s head we have a first row seat watching as he starts to develop feelings for this mysterious and mute, but all the more handsome Mr White. As his feelings grow his religious beliefs start to crumble, and his facade of a pure-hearted and sane-minded man starts to crack.
At first Archer tries to explain his growing feelings, the special attention he handles Mr White with as the procedure of “building up trust with the individual”. But after a certain time, and his incessant partial treatment towards the patient, Archer has to admit at least to himself, that there is a lot more into his act than professionalism, and the constant observation of the patient’s well-being.
He doesn’t know what to do with his feelings and desires, he is painfully aware that all this is wrong in the eyes of the society and God, but he just can’t switch off his feelings. He tries to get rid of them using various tactics, and failing with each of them spectacularly. He tries to ignore his desires, then tries to confess it. But the non-caring attitude of the priest and the instruction Archer receives from him do nothing to solve the doctor’s problems.
“Bless me father, for I have sinned. It has been fourteen days since my last confession. I have had… I have had impure thoughts about a man in my care.”
The priest voice registers a mixture of distance and boredom. “And what impure thoughts are these, my son?”
The priest voice dare Dr Archer to entertain, shock or move him and Archer’s skin crawls. The vision of his imagined depravity parade before his mind’s eyes – a man entrusted into his care, an innocent, stripped and pinned down, writhing, to his bed, wanton and wanting, wanting him (…).
Clearing his throat, Dr Archer says, hesitantly, “Terrible things, Father, that I am too ashamed to recount and wish to never think upon again, with our Lord’s assistance.”
The priest grunts, although wether disappointed or disapproving of these venial sins, Dr Archer cannot tell. He says “Ten Hail Mary, five Our Father and beg the Lord that he have mercy upon you, my son. (…) I think that under the circumstances, reflection upon your wrongdoings may be somewhat counterproductive.”
In the dim light of the box, the doctor can feel his cheeks flare with blush.
But who is this mysterious Mr White disturbing so deeply a man of God and good-will living for helping the most helpless creatures of the Victorian-British society? Well, no-one knows anything about him. Not the doctors, not the narrator and therefore, none of us, the readers. Every tiny bit of information about the patient is only an assumption, based on Mr White’s clothes he was wearing when he was admitted to the asylum.
The gossip about him is that he might be a man prostitute caught in a quarrel about money or sexual services – no one would ever know. But he looked like someone with links to the upper classes even if he wasn’t one of them. He was wearing an elegant black – but unmistakably second-hand – great coat, remarkable and conspicuous enough not to be considered as an everyday garment.
Mr White is a striking man with long black hair – courtesy of the good Dr Archer who can’t bring himself to cut his hair short according to the asylum’s hygiene rules – and blue eyes. White contrary to the other patients is always calm and smiling, obedient to Archer, takes all kind of medicines the doctor brings to him, and makes him swallow. But never reacts when Archer is speaking to him or gives him orders to test him times and times again.
White’s behavior is confusing to the doctor more than once. Because of his obedient nature and non-reaction to verbal stimulus but observable reactions to Archer’s mood changes. There are times when even the wise doctor misinterprets White’s reactions.
And if you ever wonder why is the title choice, When the music stops, it’s all linked to our enchanted Mr White.
He runs a hand over his (White’s) face and wonders if White is really the mad one, White who is always so happy…
They’ve taken to playing him to music. The doctor won’t say how he found out (head cradled passively in his lap, singing softly enough to him no to wake the man next door) but as long as the phonograph plays on repeat White is still and silent, his blue eyes glassy, his mouth open and smiling.
It’s only when the music stops that he begins to howl.
As you can see in this citation, the only place where past tense is involved is always in connection with Mr White. The events concerning Archer, are always linked to the present, same as his thoughts, further emphasizing the fact that all his world revolves around his patient, making this doctor-patient relationship unhealthy in the watching gazes of the other doctors and orderlies of the asylum. Later we will see how it affects the course of events.
And where is the culminating point in the story? After an involuntary act from Mr White’s side which as an unfortunate course of events is misinterpreted by Dr Archer, followed by the doctor’s mistaken reaction – he kisses the patient which causes a fit of howling and trashing from Mr White -, forcing a rather radical decision. Dr Archer decide not to attend the attractive man anymore. White’s behavior completely changes after that, the becomes aggressive, not letting other doctor or orderlies to tend to him.
Later Archer realizes that White’s episode wasn’t against the kiss, it was against his restraints and strait jacket, because later when Archer kisses him again – this time without anything restraining cords or jackets between them -, White reacts to Archer as any healthy (gay) man would, he reciprocates the kiss.
But the aggressive behavior in Archer’s absence is enough to get the asylum management’s attention. It’s never good for the reputation of institutions like Link Hill when gossips got out about raving mad patients who are in dire need to be beaten into submission. So they decide that White has to undergo corrective surgery – lobotomy -, and he narrowly escapes this fate thanks to Dr Archer.
Lobotomy was widely used as a corrective measure in order to subdue aggressive patients or deviants at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, without anyone knowing the extent of damage they would cause due to the destruction in the frontal lobe of the human brain. My description of lobotomy is very wage on this subject, so if you want to know more about it, click on this link, and check out the Wikipedia article.
And if you want to know how the events of the book turn out for Dr Archer and for his patient Mr White, you have to read When the music stops. I liked the book very much, and even though Mr White is a passive character in the story, I liked him very much. It was also interesting to see how Archer rebuilds himself, how his world rearranges after he accepts his fate and leaves the path originally decided for him.
So give this book a try, I promise you won’t regret it.
Source of cover image: unsplash.com (@jonjons)