Written by Marie Hermanson, translated by Neil Smith — It’s a title that might have graced one of Dennis Wheatley’s satanic potboilers – but don’t let that put you off. The Devil’s Sanctuary is, in fact, the first offering in translation from bestselling Swedish author Marie Hermanson. It’s published by the Little, Brown imprint Trapdoor, which specialises in translated crime fiction and issued Hjorth Rosenfeldt’s Sebastian Bergman last summer.
The Devil’s Sanctuary, or Himmelstal (meaning heavenly valley) to use its original title, is a curious novel with a hint of the gothic that successfully creates a mood of unease even if the story’s sometimes a little uninvolving. The opening, however, is arresting: the protagonist, Daniel, receives a letter he thinks, briefly, is from Hell. It’s actually an unclear postmark for the Swiss region Helvetia, and the letter’s from his estranged, bipolar brother Max – an invitation to visit the Alpine clinic where he’s staying. It emerges they are identical twins with a bizarre relationship defined by the pediatric advice their divorced parents acted upon. From an early age, the twins were split up and met only on birthdays, where mutual curiosity often intensified into arguments and fights.
Of course, Daniel’s intuition about a missive from Hell is not entirely misplaced. A burnt-out, solitary teacher with a failed marriage, he accepts the invitation and is soon lulled by the clinic’s luxury and routines set by staff known as hosts and hostesses. Max entertains his calmer, thoughtful brother to fishing trips and strolls into the strange village where the pub resembles a gingerbread house in a fairy tale. Relaxed as well as weary of his own life, Daniel stumbles into a plan concocted by his twin to swap places using a fake beard from the drama department, so that Max can leave and collect some illicit cash in order to pay his bill. If this were a film, I’d probably have been shouting at the screen at this point, as it’s blindingly obvious that the hopeless Daniel has arranged his own incarceration.
The back cover compares The Devil’s Sanctuary with Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, though I also detected elements of 1970s conspiracy thriller films, cult TV drama The Prisoner and – this was no doubt unintentional – British TV horror comedy The League of Gentlemen’s fictional town of Royston Vasey, whose sign has the ominous declaration ‘You’ll never leave!’.
Unfortunately, Daniel is a weak character whose fate you don’t necessarily care too much about. The impersonation of his twin becomes burdensome as he endures late night visits from staff flashing torchlight in his eyes, fails to rub along with other residents and attracts a vampish female inmate whose endearment ‘my little lamb’ is more sinister than it seems. ‘He really wasn’t enjoying his stay here at this luxury clinic,’ Daniel decides, though recourse to TripAdvisor is not an option. There’s no internet access or indeed any unmonitored contact with the outside world from the isolated valley. Max, of course, fails to return as planned.
While many high concept thrillers fizzle out, Hermanson’s story picks up in the second half until you’re almost overwhelmed by the sense of peril facing Daniel in his picturesque prison, where he attempts to persuade disbelieving medical staff of his real identity. When he meets a woman he cares about, we actually start to root for him. The valley’s ancient leper cemetery is a symbolic clue to how society might view the clinic’s long-term residents, while the medical staff and researchers’ approach to these ‘exotic animals’ hints at a burgeoning institutional madness. There’s a haunting quality to the economical prose as well as some startling similes (when Daniel confronted his ex-wife, he ‘squeezed the truth out of her like a tube of toothpaste’).
The Devil’s Sanctuary is not a triumphant English language debut but it’s a memorable novel that delves into the murkier side of human psychology and builds to a macabre conclusion. I’m intrigued enough to read more of Hermanson’s writing.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars
“Himmelstal” is German. The Swedish title is “Himmelsdalen”. Was this book originally published in German?
No, in Swedish, I think. Himmelstal is the name of the psychiatric facility in the book.