We Are Monsters, by Brian Kirk

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Publication date – July 7, 2015

Summary: The Apocalypse has come to the Sugar Hill mental asylum.

He’s the hospital’s newest, and most notorious, patient—a paranoid schizophrenic who sees humanity’s dark side.

Luckily he’s in good hands. Dr. Eli Alpert has a talent for healing tortured souls. And his protégé is working on a cure for schizophrenia, a drug that returns patients to their former selves. But unforeseen side effects are starting to emerge. Forcing prior traumas to the surface. Setting inner demons free.

Monsters have been unleashed inside the Sugar Hill mental asylum. They don’t have fangs or claws. They look just like you or me.

Thoughts: Mental health is a touchy subject, and it’s easy to make missteps that can be insulting to those who have experienced mental illness or spread false information to those who take things at face value. It’s easy to say that oh, nobody would take stuff from this book seriously, since it involved experimental medicine that results in schizophrenics manipulating the perception of reality for other people, forcing them to experience a sort of externally-influenced schizophrenia themselves, so clearly it’s fantasy and clearly liberties have been taken. Doesn’t stop people from making their judgments, though. But really, We Are Monsters doesn’t run into too many of those issues, presenting different sides of mental illness in ways that are easy to understand and also easy to conclude that a lot of it differs from individual to individual. It was good to see some stereotypes avoided, and for manifestations to occur in ways that lie outside standard textbook examples.

It’s this element that made me enjoy the book despite it’s somewhat odd-at-times execution. The idea was strong, if a bit meandering; it takes a while for things to build, leaving most of the novel to be devoted to character-building. Good if you like character studies, but not so great if you approach this horror novel looking for thrills and chills early on. But back to my original point; the decent treatment of mental illness. Some people with mental illness are violent, others confused. Some accept help, some try to hide the fact that there’s anything wrong. Some people deny that there’s anything wrong while simultaneously recognizing their own symptoms in other people. It’s a variable thing, highly individual, and not every treatment approach will work for every patient. So in that regard, it was pretty good. The fact that one of the characters was a schizophrenic serial killer did not for a second leave me with the impression that the author thinks every person with schizophrenia is a serial killer waiting to happen.

That being said, there were some issues that did bother me. One is the idea that healing can really only begin when you forgive your abuser and recognize that their abuse was born of their own mental illness. It was interesting to use “contagious mental illness” as an analogy to the abuse cycle, and it’s one that I can’t deny has some validity on the surface, but no, I disagree with that conclusion that particular character reached. There were a couple of moments when it seemed like there were hints of “mental illness is a get-out-of-jail-free card” in the story. I disagreed with the blanket application of mental illness as a defense mechanism; it was said at one point that a character’s schizophrenia was a possible defense against a traumatic childhood; a permanent break from reality because reality was so horrific. There are mental illnesses that manifest due to trauma, schizophrenia isn’t one of them.

The idea that “we’re all ill” is probably the most problematic theme, though, but mostly if you take it out of context. Every character in the book was ill. Dealing with chemical imbalances, unresolved grief, all of them attempting to cope in poor ways that don’t actually do much to help a person cope. My problem was that was a personal one, one that came from experience of my own mental illness being downplayed by people who said similar things. “We’re all ill, we all have problems, we’re all weird.” These things are usually said to try and build a bridge between someone who suffers and someone who wants to help, but what it often ends up doing is making the sufferer feel more alone. We’re all ill, but I’m the only one coping with it so badly. We all have problems, but mine are the ones affecting my life so publicly.

It was, in fairness, something that was said most often during a period where reality was affected by someone who had trouble understanding reality, so I won’t hold that against the book too much, but it was something that got under my skin a bit.

The real gem in this book is the way it raises questions. What’s it like to not understand reality? How much of reality is actually undeniably real? What’s the best way to treat mental illness? Why do religious archetypes persist in hallucinations and delusions? Where do we draw the line between sane and insane? Why are some little voices n our minds considered normal and healthy and yet others are considered unhealthy? Lines don’t get drawn very often, and there’s a lot of room for interpretation and reflection as the story goes on, and if you’re interested in mental health on a layman’s level, then We Are Monsters could certainly get you thinking about things in ways that might surprise you.

Characterization, sadly, was fairly weak in a lot of areas. The protagonists got a fair bit of development, plenty of chapters to themselves to show backstory and some degree of growth, but the side characters, especially ones that acted against what protagonists wanted, were bordering on caricatures, with little to them but a stereotype. Devon, the orderly at Sugar Hill, was your typical “I use unnecessary force on psych patients” guy, threatening to kill them because he doesn’t like them. Bearman, chairman of the board for the hospital, was impatient and didn’t actually care about the medicine because he wanted results no matter how unethical they were. If you weren’t a good guy, you were a cardboard bad guy. Being a minor character is no excuse to be without nuance.

We Are Monsters had some ups and downs, a bit inconsistently, but it was a decent read. Short chapters made it very easy to say, “Just one more chapter” to; I’d rarely have to read more than 10 pages before another chapter ended, so it felt like the book just sped by! Not spectacular, but still decent, and it has some definitely creepy and disturbing imagery that will appeal to fans of the horror genre. I wouldn’t run out to grab copies from the shelf, but it’s still worth a read if you get the chance.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

2 comments on “We Are Monsters, by Brian Kirk

  1. Pingback: July in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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