Novella Review – The Asylum of Dr. Caligari by James Morrow

Rating: 6.8 (out of 10)

James Morrow’s new novella recasts the infamous villain of Robert Weine’s 1920 horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as a psychiatrist (and contemporary rival of Freud) running his own asylum in Germany at the dawn of World War I. The hero of the story is Francis Wyndham, an American expat trying to make a living as a painter in Europe. Wyndham accepts a position as an “art therapist” at Caligari’s asylum, where he discovers that Caligari is also a sorcerer who uses magic to great success as a war profiteer. Wyndham also falls in love with one of his patients, Ilona Wessels, who has a gift for sorcery to rival Caligari’s.
Weine’s film has always been read an allegory for Germany’s war lust and its attraction to tyranny, and Morrow literalizes that interpretation in his prequel-ish treatment of the character. Despite the novella’s dark themes and often brutal violence, its tone has more in common with screwball romantic comedies (recalling the films of another German-born director of that time, Ernst Lubitsch) than the oppressive horror of its source text. The verbal sparring and rib-poking pastiche are fun to read, but the characters all feel like they are participating in a prankish vaudeville act, and there is little to engage beneath the surface.
Film history buffs, art history buffs, and history buffs in general will find much to enjoy in Morrow’s slightly surreal mash-up. I had a reasonably good time reading it, but found it a little disappointing that a story with such weighty themes felt a little too light to the touch.

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