• West Cork Literary Festival 8-15 July 2022

When Setting is a Character: The Hiding Place by John Burley

Writing.ie | Resources | The Art of Description
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John Burley

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Menaker State Hospital is a curse, a refuge, a place of imprisonment, a necessity, a nightmare, a salvation.

This is the setting for my latest novel, The Hiding Place, a story that unfolds at a psychiatric institution responsible for housing patients who’ve committed heinous crimes but have been deemed either incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity. The opening chapter describes the facility as “an assortment of red brick buildings erected at the end of the 19th century and disseminated in small clusters across the quiet grounds, as if reflecting the scattered, huddled psyches of the patients themselves.” There is a mild sense of neglect to the property, whose “irrepressible thistles erupt from the earth during the warmer months and lay their barbed tendrils against the base of the edifices, attempting to claim them as their own.” The metal railings along the outdoor walkways “harbor minute, jagged irregularities on their surfaces that will cut you if you run your fingers along them too quickly.”

The novel’s first-person narrator is Dr. Lise Shields, a psychiatrist at Menaker. “The word ‘asylum’,” she tells us, “has long since fallen into disfavor to describe institutions such as this. It conjures up images of patients (there was a time when they were once referred to as lunatics) shackled to concrete slabs in small dingy cells, straining at their chains and cackling madly into the darkness. To admit that we once treated those with mental illness in such a way makes all of humanity cringe, and therefore one will no longer find ‘asylums’ for such individuals, but rather ‘hospitals.’ And yet, for places like Menaker,” she says, “I’ve always preferred the original term. For although we attempt to treat the chronically impaired, much of what we offer here is protection—an asylum from the outside world.”

As both the author and a reader, I like this image of Menaker: something old and almost forgotten, a place of refuge from the broader world. And yet there is also something ominous in its presence, a reminder of the violent crimes for which its patients have been imprisoned. In this way, Menaker is a reflection of each of its residents. It gathers them in, incorporates them into its walls. It becomes them, and they become part of the institution itself, as inseparable from the buildings as the brick and mortar all around them. There can be no escape from a place such as this, and no one knows this better than the person whose duty it is to watch over them. “We belong to our past,” Lise reminds us, “each of us serving it in our own way. And to break the tether between that time and the present is to risk shattering ourselves in the process.”

Setting has its own personality. It can become a character within a story. Menaker does just that, and part of what makes it unsettling is that there is something almost human about it. For this reason especially, it is important to avoid clichés in the depiction of setting, for if setting is to be considered its own character then clichés are equivalent to human stereotypes. Setting—and people—deserve better than that.

There is a darkness—maybe even a hopelessness—to the grounds of the hospital. The campus perimeter is encircled by a wrought iron fence whose ten-foot spear pickets curve inward at the top. It is clearly designed to keep patients in. Still, the refuge that it offers its residents should not be overlooked, for protection is a key theme in The Hiding Place. But protection, we will come to realize, can be a double-edged sword. There is an implicit potential for violence in our response to those things that threaten us. And controlling that violence—holding it at bay until it is clearly necessary—is no simple task. There is a tendency for us to go too far, or not far enough. When is protection more dangerous than the original threat?

The Hiding Place challenges the reader to consider this question as the protection and threats of Menaker State Hospital continue to reveal themselves, blending into each other until they are as indistinguishable and enigmatic as the infinite caverns of the human mind.

(c) John Burley

About The Hiding Place

A chilling and twisted tale of cat and mouse – perfect for fans of Linwood Barclay and Harlan Coben.

She can’t reach him … but he can get to her …

Dr Lise Shields works alongside some of the most dangerous criminals in America. As a psychiatrist she goes further than many, trying to work out what motivates these depraved and deadly individuals. When she gets close to one patient, Jason, she realises that his story isn’t black and white, and perhaps they’ve got the wrong man. But in letting Jason in, and believing his story, Lise soon realises she has put herself in terrible danger as she uncovers secrets, lies and unanswered questions. Is Lise living on borrowed time? And when she reaches the point of no return – where will she hide?

The Hiding Place is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!

About the author

John Burley attended medical school in Chicago and completed his residency in emergency medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Centre’s Shock Trauma Centre in Baltimore. He currently serves as an emergency medicine physician in Northern California, where he lives with his wife and daughter, and their Great Dane and English bulldog.

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