“Secrets will damn us all…”
Secrets can be an insidious thing, able to due untold amounts of damage. The destructive nature of secrets is at the heart of the terror in Sacra Obscurum, the debut novel from Todd Allen. Set in coastal Canada, and more specifically the haunted Saint Michael’s mental health hospital, it’s a novel of fathers and sons, small towns and how secrets pass down through generations.
The main character of the story is Matt Dawson, a psychiatrist who is drawn back to the town he grew up in by the death of his father. Stanley Dawson, also a psychiatrist, owns and operates Saint Michael’s, a small, private mental health facility dedicated to treating patients in need of long term in patient care. Matt, leaving his job in a public healthcare institution, finds himself running his father’s hospital and trying to salvage it from financial ruin. Matt becomes overwhelmed after bring on a new doctor, who is to take over the hospital after he returns to his real job, and finds conflicts growing with his staff and one peculiar patient.
Morry Dykeman seems a model patient at first glance. He’s quite to the point of being mute, he doesn’t move under his own power and consequently creates no problems for the hospital staff. But Matt notices that he’s medicated to the point of medical catatonia, a condition that provides no opportunity for the patient to recover or rehabilitate. As he digs deeper into the case of Dykeman, Matt uncovers a complete lack of records for the man. The secrets centering on Dykeman become the main thrust of the narrative.
Matt Dawson is a well realized character, a doctor with principles and a man with demons. He comes across very realistic as do many of the supporting players. The newly graduated Darcy, the new doctor hired to take over the operation is idealistic and motivated by very honest emotions regarding a dark family past. The orderlies and nurses compliment these characters and come off in a likewise three dimensional way. Some of the townsfolk are real enough that the reader is actually able to make inferences about their histories and see those inferences become true.
This is a first novel for Allen, and it is an impressive debut. One criticism is with the dialogue, which is the only unnatural element of the characters. It often comes off as stilted and more like lines being read than words being spoken. The other story element that didn’t quite work was the early scenes about the presence, or ghost, roaming the halls of the hospital. As the story develops these scenes become better fleshed-out and more relevant to the greater plot, but the early ones, short though they were, didn’t click as well as the rest of the story. Neither of these things bog down the story, though, which constantly moves ahead with a quick pace.
Sacra Obscurum is very entertaining novel from a great new voice in horror. As one of the best first novels of the year it establishes Todd Allen as a writer to watch.