A Book Review of The Safe, by Daniel Barnett
This beautifully horrific novel is set in an asylum for the criminally insane, the dirty secret of small-town New England where “the dark was greedier…than the city, more over bearing, fattening itself on every unguarded inch of mud and bark and stone.” You’ll find plenty more quotes from The Safe in my review, because Daniel Barnett weaves poetry through the darkness at every turn. Eloquent language is the only brightness at Harbrook Hill and the contrast makes the asylum seem even more bleak and tragic, suspense lurking in every chapter. The building is an ancient, stinking, live thing, an anteroom described as the passageway between the skin and the meat. Even the air around Harbrook Hill is menacing: “The morning wind had claws.”
We’re introduced to this forbidding place as its new resident, Walter Hosler, arrives. He’s a huge, black, silent bear of a man. People shrink from his presence and the memory of his crime–a crime that everyone knows well, because the murder happened right there in their small town. One person asks Walter what he did with his wife’s head. That night, half of Harbrook Hill burns to the ground, at least one patient succumbing to the fire, and somehow Walter is involved. Shortly after, he beats the crap out of a guard and winds up with his own teeth jutting out of his lip for the offense. Yet, he stays silent.
It’s hard to feel sorry for such a man to rot out the rest of his days in a psychotic prison…until you get to know him. And like him. Barnett accomplishes this through flashbacks from Walter’s memory; summer sunshine and carnival cheer flash into view, a welcome reprieve from the oppressive, threatening atmosphere of the first couple chapters. Walter recalls an adolescent “date” at a county fair with his late wife, Alva: “Boys had on sweat for shirts; girls wore two-piece swimsuits under their clothes, as if expecting a lake to well up from the ground and demand a fast strip. Young children darted and kicked soccer balls and played tireless games of tag, while everyone else went about slow and dazed, moving to the tune of the cicada’s drone in a dance called the summer shuffle.” What follows is one of the most realistic, tender love scenes I’ve read in years—a complete surprise in the middle of a horror story!
But don’t forget, this is a horror story and not at all for the faint of heart. Barnett’s gore is as shocking as his romance, but not for novelty or brevity. There’s plenty of it and it can be gruesome indeed. We do find out what happened to Walter’s poor wife, why he’s called Safe-Man, and why he’s being haunted. The man/monster that is haunting him—tormenting him with “suicides” in every cell surrounding Walter’s—is a unique creation of nightmare, phobia and creature-legend. Barnett describes the thing just enough to form a concrete image, yet leaves enough to the imagination to raise hackles in the dark. The thing is terrifying and unstoppable; you know he will get to Walter before the book is through and you know it will be violent.
However, this author’s violence can be sensual as well. He describes a car crash as, “like climax, an eruption. The shudder of metal, ripples in steel, mimics the body before orgasm.” Pain becomes divine, when, “sparks erupted in the dark, dozens of them, stars going nova across the nightscape. His body was a cathedral of pain, and the pain was wonderful, terrible.” And, no surprise to me by the time I reached the last few pages, this story has a wonderful ending, full of peace and hope. You may not believe that while you’re in the depths of it—deep, dark depths—but trust me, every bit of this book is worth the read.