4 out of 4 stars
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Folie¿ is a gothic horror novella by M.S. Barnes. The year is 1960. Dr. Jane Lee takes up her new role at Southern States asylum in Tennessee. The large facility, with six long hallways extending out from a central administrative area, was the brainchild of Dr. Thomas Kirkbride. Unlike his peers, Kirkbride believed the mentally ill should be treated with kindness and given access to fresh air and sunlight. Unfortunately, Southern States is grossly underfunded and understaffed. The facility's 2100 patients and skeleton staff result in overcrowding and neglect, directly contravening Dr. Kirkbride's philosophy. Murderers, rapists, and the insane share dormitory-style rooms with those admitted for minor maladies such as poverty, depression, or dementia. Many harsh old-fashioned treatments are also still used, such as hydrotherapy, electric shock; even an occasional lobotomy. When Dr. Jane Lee sees Matilda Rose, an innocent-looking young woman admitted with schizophrenia, she feels compassion and takes up the girl's case herself. However, Matilda is seeing things. Shocking, terrifying things. Not only that; sometimes other people see the things she sees. Her mother saw them. So did other doctors and nurses who have worked with Matilda. And they almost all ended up insane or dead. The French term folie à deux means a psychosis shared by two. Will Matilda share hers with Dr. Jane Lee?
Let's cut straight to the punchline. This is a brilliant book. Frightening. Chilling. Dreadful. Mind-blowing. Genuine, old-fashioned, creepy horror: the kind that holds just a bit back to let you imagine the worst, then later drags you, kicking and screaming, right into those dark corners where you don't want to go. I would have been devastated if I couldn't award Folie¿ the 4 out of 4 stars it deserves due to its editing. Fortunately, that is as exceptional as the rest of it. I found only three minor errors, two of which were the word “wretch” instead of “retch.” I cannot stress enough: If you are a genuine horror fan, you must read this book. It has some profanity, but only in extreme situations. Barnes dedicates it to Shirley Jackson, “the queen of the more subtle, creepy tales of a bygone era,” such as The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House; she inspired him to write this story.
The book has a fantastic creepy cover, featuring the façade of the asylum with a straitjacketed young woman out front, and the French word folie defined against the overcast sky above the building. Barnes builds atmosphere immediately, with creepy descriptions of the Southern States buildings and inmates, plus aberrant behaviour to show what Dr. Lee faces in her new job. He emphasises the neglected buildings, the filth, and the lack of staff. Right after this, he introduces Matilda Rose. His descriptions are simple, strong, and evoke the right mood perfectly; for example: “She entered exam room number three and the dangerous, unnatural, sucking vortex of her first-ever patient's psyche.” The asylum contrasts starkly with the office of Dr. Lee's mentor, Dr. Hambden, where: “The sun coming through the large eastern window seemed like butter flavoring the already sweet air of the office.”
Barnes fosters a terrific underlying sense of unease about the Southern States facility, which incorporates some odd events and practices. Even his minor details gnaw at you as you try to work out exactly what is wrong with the place, aside from the obvious neglect and lack of staff. He also shows a sound knowledge of the relevant medical conditions, methods, and equipment of the time. There are some really creepy moments with Matilda Rose and Dr. Lee, right from their first interview. An odd flicker of movement suggests another entity in the room, then a guttural, monotone voice speaks obscenely to Dr. Lee. She thinks it was Matilda, but is not sure. Also, the story's main hooks are powerful on their own: What exactly is Matilda seeing? Who or what killed her family in such a horrible fashion? And how do others see the same things she does?
Once the story kicks up a gear, “creepy” quickly becomes “bone-chilling.” Barnes beautifully applies the old horror adage that it sometimes isn't what you see, but what you don't (instead, seeing a character's reaction) that is often the most frightening. Matilda Rose's vague early mentions to Dr. Lee and Dr. Hambden of “them” and “It” are chilling on their own. From there, it only gets worse. Some of the descriptions toward the end are brutally graphic, but only in keeping with the story and the horrific events portrayed. There are definite thematic and tonal similarities to The Exorcist, which is high praise indeed. The major climactic scene is powerful, chilling, confronting, and sickening; just what you want in an epic horror tale.
The only potential improvement I could suggest for this novella would be to end it right after the climax for maximum impact. Though it is already short at under 200 pages, the last four chapters, while entertaining, aren't really essential. Those who have seen David Fincher's gritty cop thriller Seven might know what I mean; it was originally meant to have an extra scene as a coda, but Fincher decided to cut the film right after its shattering conclusion, which left cinema audiences sitting, stunned, through the closing credits. Aside from this somewhat subjective suggestion, however, Folie¿ is the perfect horror story. Not good. Not great. Perfect. Don't just take my word for it, though. You need to see what I've seen. You need to see them. You need to see It.
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