In Patrick McGrath’s Asylum, Stella Raphael and her husband Max live on the premises of a maximum-security mental hospital, where Max is the deputy administrator. Not long after they arrive, Stella becomes involved with Edgar Stark, a patient who has been sent to the asylum for decapitating his wife and mutilating her head. Stark’s case is handled by Peter Cleave, who also tells their story. Here’s how he begins:
The catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years now. Such relationships vary widely in duration and intensity but tend to pass through the same stages. Recognition. Identification. Assignation. Structure. Complication. And so on. Stella Raphael’s story is one of the saddest I know. A deeply frustrated woman, she suffered the predictable consequences of a long denial collapsing in the face of sudden overwhelming temptation. And she was a romantic. She translated her experience with Edgar Stark into the stuff of melodrama, she made of it a tale of outcast lovers braving the world’s contempt for the sake of a great passion.
We know right away that things will end badly, as these things always do. And things do get bad, very quickly. And then they get worse. And Cleave chronicles it all, basing his tale on his own observations and what Stella herself told him.
Cleave sees Stella as passionately devoted to Stark and seems to believe that this devotion underlies all her actions, but as the story goes on, Cleave’s role as narrator become muddier and muddier until the truth of the situation becomes entirely unclear. We know that Cleave got a lot of information from Stella, but why should we assume Stella was honest? And eventually, we are given reason to doubt Cleave’s own words. So we’re left with an unreliable narrator telling a story that was told to him by another unreliable narrator. Very Wuthering Heights. And in a good way.