Before I begin this review of the horror novel, The Dark Chorus by Ashley Meggitt, I would like to give some trigger warnings for this book. There are graphic scenes of psychosis, and psychiatric patients being mistreated in a mental health facility. For readers who are sensitive to these kinds of topics, I wouldn’t recommend this book.
The Dark Chorus follows a boy without a name who can see and collect lost souls from the Dark Chorus, which is where the dead who are unable to move on to the afterlife remain – a limbo if you like. His mother is one of these lost souls and he attempts to save her from limbo by trapping her inside another woman, only unintentionally to drive that woman mad. He then kills the woman to get his mother’s soul back, but the murder lands him in an asylum for the criminally insane. The boy must find another way to save his mum’s soul, but that means escaping the asylum.
What I liked about this book was the writing. The story was scary in the right places, and you could feel the weather vividly, which is key for a good horror book. I also appreciated the themes regarding the mistreatment of and lack of empathy shown to some of the most vulnerable people, the mentally ill, even though I question the execution, which leads me to my next point.
I struggled to connect with the characters.
It is possibly because I am not the right audience. I have suffered with mental illness and feel the representation of conditions I am familiar with was not always accurate. So, I would ask you to keep that in mind before you read on.
The Psychiatrist, Dr Eve Rhodes, who is assigned the unnamed boy and assists the police with the murder investigation, is supposed to be a sympathetic character. However, several of her assessments of psychotic patients can be uncomfortable to read. For example, she explains how she must protect herself from violent patients, and there are no patients that we meet that aren’t violent. However, mentally ill patients, particularly psychotic ones, are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. I would let this trope slide if the main character, who isn’t violent and is very well-behaved, was also mentally ill, but he isn’t. He’s psychic (rather than psychotic) and his experiences and beliefs are real.
What also makes this read disturbing is that Makka, the boy’s friend and another patient of Dr Eve Rhodes, is an extremely violent psychotic, further perpetrating the idea that the mentally ill are violent. I’m not saying that there can’t be violent mentally ill characters in books, but to be an accurate representation they need to be mixed with some mellow mentally ill characters too, especially in a time where people still believe all psychotics are violent.
It is worth noting, though, that Makka is sympathetically drawn.
The uniform representation of the psychiatric patients is a shame because otherwise this is a fascinating horror story addressing deep philosophical questions and with a tight plot. I feel down the road as we begin to build a repertoire of positive representation of the mentally ill, I might be able to enjoy this book more. But as it stands, it was a difficult read.
I still recommend it to fans of the horror genre. The Dark Chorus is a beautifully written book. But I would shy away from this if you know someone who has or if you have experienced a psychiatric illness.