The Clinic by David Jester offers you exactly the experience you expect from the title and cover art and general description. It is a horror story set within a mental hospital that combines suspense and gore. It doesn’t subvert the tropes of the genre all that much and there isn’t anything especially ground-breaking about the story. However, as far as blunt, brutal horror stories go, The Clinic knows what it’s doing and it does it well.
The book opens on the three main characters – teenage boys name Eddie, Darren and Malcolm – robbing a house. It spends a chapter with each one, introducing them to you more thoroughly and exploring their histories.
Darren lives with his mother and her violent boyfriend, and hopes that by stealing he can get out of their downward spiral and make it on his own. Malcolm has been abandoned by both his parents and hopes that he can steal enough money to get his own place before anyone finds out. Eddie doesn’t have anything like the problems with peers face. He is spoilt by his wealthy parents and is actively unpleasant to people around him. He is aggressive towards his friends, misogynistic towards strangers and rude (to say the very least) to his parents.
They are generally unpleasant teenagers. They all show signs of having internalised toxic masculinity, reacting violently to things that upset them. Eddie is evidently the worst and the way his character devolves comes as no surprise.
It’s possible to empathise with the other two due to their unpleasant situations, but there isn’t all that much in the opening chapters that shows them to be very nice kids. There aren’t very many secondary characters and those that do exist aren’t very well fleshed out.
It is particularly noticeable that there are no female characters with any nuance. All three boys at some point reference their mothers, but they are generally stock depictions of different types of bad parent, rather than feeling like human beings. There is also an unnamed woman who Eddie harasses on a public bus. Finally, Malcolm has a crush on a woman ten years his senior who works in an animal shelter. Inexplicably, they end up together at the end of the book, with no reference to the fact that he is a teenager and she is approaching thirty.
The meat of the story begins when the three boys, inspired by Eddie’s drunkard uncle, decide to break into what they believe to be a rehabilitation centre for the wealthy. Once inside, they find out that they have inadvertently cornered themselves in a mental institution in which the patients have taken to killing the staff and each other.
Despite finding a security guard slumped in a puddle of his own blood, they do not immediately leave. Instead, they decide to explore until they find some loot given that they’ve gone to all the trouble of breaking and entering.
It is not long before they are separated by the appearance of some threatening figures who chase them in different directions.
Once the boys are apart, Jester’s skill as a writer becomes apparent. He creates very effective tension by switching between the three perspectives. It means that there are a lot of cliffhangers in the book – near enough one at the end of each chapter – but it works for the genre.
Despite the similarity of their experiences, each character is written with subtle nuances that indicated their emotional reaction to the situation. Some details are incredibly small – for instance, Eddie thinks of the patients he crosses in much more offensive terms that the other two boys do, even when they are not violent.
Jester clearly describes the route that each boy takes through the hospital, but in such a way that you feel lost while reading it. It definitely takes on the sensation of a labyrinthine place, which adds to the sense of fear that the boys might never get out alive. As a reader, you feel as disoriented as the characters do.
Most of the things that the boys are encounter are purely shocking. There aren’t many clues about what might have triggered this violent event, conveniently on the day of their break in. The things they see don’t really teach them anything, either. They don’t hold a mirror up to their own attitudes or behaviours. It’s pure gore and shock and carnage, without much depth. There isn’t even very much that is directly related to the revelations at the end.
To Jester’s credit, the climactic ending does come as a surprise.
The three boys are reunited and an antagonist reveals himself. Eddie has a role in the ending. Malcom and Darren are basically just onlookers. There are some explanations that cover some of the more convenient things that happen, such as the reason the violence coincided with the boys’ break in.
It attempted to subvert the trope of mental patients being murderers (a cliché which can be very damaging to people with genuine mental health issues), but could have done it better.
It turns out that all the family history of all three boys is entwined with the mental hospital. Abuse in the institution is revealed to be the reason that Darren and Malcolm’s mothers have such difficult lives now. Eddie was lucky enough to have been adopted into the family that raised him.
The puppet master who incited the entire plot of the book reveals all and then is killed, along with Eddie. Darren, Malcolm and their mothers escape thanks to a self-sacrificial moment of heroism on the part of Darren’s racist, violent, drug-addicted stepfather, which gives him a sense of redemption that he didn’t deserve.
The book concludes with Darren and Malcolm giving up on their lives on crime and living happily ever after. They make no attempt to help their mothers turn their lives around, despite now being fully aware of the fact that their bad decisions were fuelled by serious abuse. They don’t have any post-traumatic stress, despite having come close to being murdered numerous times in one night, seeing people burned alive and losing one of their oldest friends in a horrible way.
There isn’t a lot in this book that has very much depth. If you’re looking for horror that reflects society’s problems in a thought-provoking way, you won’t find it here. However, if you want a rampage through carnage and chaos that revels in blood and brutality, you won’t have to look any further than The Clinic.