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Tabula Rasa

Gothic Hospital

by Gary Crew. Lothian Books, 2001, ISBN 0-7344-0232-5.

A review by David Carroll

Gothic Hospital coverI'm telling you the truth, Doctor. I think you believe me. I hope so. And if you do, you have to believe that all this really wipes me out. No. It's not that I think my father is tied up somewhere having his guts sucked out. But I reckon that deep down these dreams are hinting that I wish he was.

Now this is a deeply strange book.

Gary Crew has been a prolific author of young adult fiction in the horror and fantasy vein for some time now, and has also written crime and SF for older readers. In recent years he has been editing the After Dark series for Lothian, which seems to be doing good business and has provided a good opportunity for unpublished authors (see the Cameron Rogers interview for the story of one person who has gone from After Dark to a deal with Penguin). Gothic Hospital is Crew's most recent novel, also from Lothian and sporting a beautiful cover. It follows our young hero, Johnny Doolan, as he enters the oppressive world of Gothic Hospital, a dark castle on top of a lonely mountain, overseen by the awful Doctor Gorman and littered with the graves of children.

Actually, it's a bit more complicated than that. The book is divided up into 'sessions' instead of chapters, and told in first person, apparently to a psychiatrist. We learn Johnny is an eager reader, particularly of old books, from Bram Stoker to Charles Dickens and plenty more besides. So what is the relationship between his genre of choice and the strange halls he finds himself in? And why has he come here at all when only orphans have made the trip before him? Johnny's father is very much alive, so why is he receiving strange visions of his father trapped and tormented within Gothic Hospital? Add in potential love interest and a quest, and everything starts coming together, albeit in a somewhat dizzying fashion.

The book is, obviously, very gothic. Not just in the modern sense of the word but relying on many of the same conventions that drove the gothic novels of the Eighteenth century -- the young protagonist caught in a dreadful location in a far, perhaps unspecified, country; and all the twisted relationships and games between the residents of said location, leading to revelation and -- perhaps -- redemption. All this is played against modern sensibilities as well. Johnny's family background, and status as a twenty-first century teen, give him the self-confidence and knowledge to interact with and understand the residents a little more acutely than most. Whether that is enough, is a different matter, and he certainly has his vulnerabilities. This is contrasted with the other residents, particularly his friend Zac Lazarus ("Good name for a grave-digger, hey?") and the other children, Jasmine and Kurt, who are more deeply caught in the Hospital's oppression. There's also the requisite alien adults, from the hideous gate-keeper to the ultra-stuffy butler and domineering nurse -- and, of course, Doctor Gorman, mad scientist. All may have hidden depths, so there is plenty of room for that revelation.

It's often said of (Older) Young Adult books that they aren't all that different from the adult variety -- perhaps with simpler language and less overt sex and violence, although I have read plenty of pretty nasty situations in local YA books of the last few years. Another difference is that they are often centred around teenage protagonists -- certainly a primal age, when they are trying to find out where they fit in a confusing and dangerous world. Coming-of-age stories are justifiably a classic. Nonetheless, in extreme circumstances such protagonists tend to need a healthy dose of plot-luck, or the odd 'super'-power, to cope let alone triumph -- somewhere between Anakin Skywalker saving the day accidentally, and Harry Potter, most famous boy in the wizarding world (those two examples could be said to have a strange relationship with the events of Gothic Hospital, but I digress). Whilst it is not immediately obvious, this is a trap that Gary Crew does not fall into. To explain precisely why would be unfair to the novel, but trust me on this one, it works. However, it also has an intrinsic relationship with something I don't think works as well -- the first person narrative.

Although justified by its genre and by the novel itself, I felt that the writing tended to distance the reader from events too much -- particularly the all-important character interaction. Likewise the Hospital never really springs forth as its own character, as such locations often do. I also didn't get in tune with Johnny's asides to the Doctor he is talking to -- again necessary, but emphasising the somewhat contrived nature of such a narrative device. People don't speak in the even-paced way that is needed for such fiction. This is the heart of any criticism I have of the novel, and it's a tough one to make. All fiction is full of narrative contrivances, and this one pans out well (if, as I said, somewhat dizzyingly. You may want to review some of the earlier chapters). If you are finding the style a problem, persevere.

Gary Crew has had a lot of experience writing and editing for this age group and this genre and, such concerns aside, it does show. His attention to detail is excellent; he knows what he is doing, and expects you to keep up. Gothic Hospital is a mature, challenging and ultimately fascinating work, and very much recommended.


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