James Morrow’s THE ASYLUM OF DR. CALIGARI is a small masterpiece


For MADAME GRISELDA, Trevor Atherton praises James Morrow’s THE ASYLUM OF DR. CALIGARI.

The novella is a fascinating look at the devastating effects of World War One and the flowering of modern art. The narrator is an American, Francis Wyndham, who has seen the famous Armory Show in New York and decides that he wants to become a painter. He finds a job peeling potatoes on a passenger ship and makes his way to France, where he looks up Picasso in hopes of apprenticing himself to the renowned artist.


When I see an opening like this, I am struck by two things: the author has an awesome way with words and a wily sense of humor. But it is this very tongue-in-cheek stodginess that allows the book to maintain a foothold in reality while following such a wild and unbelievable plot. In some ways, the piece reads like a dream or an elongated fairytale, though I think neither comparison is sufficient to describe what is really a small masterpiece of speculation on the horrors of war and the power of art.

James Morrow was born in 1947 and has turned out over fifteen novels and novellas, including TTHE LAST WITCHFINDER (2006), GALÁPAGOS REGAINED (2015), and THE MADONNA AND THE STARSHIP (2014). Though he is sometimes identified as a science fiction author, he calls himself a “scientific humanist,” and his work has often contained a satirical look at politics or religion.  THE GODHEAD TRILOGY (1994-1999), for example, discusses what happens when God dies, leaving an enormous corpse. Such imagination is evident in THE ASYLUM OF DR. CALIGARI, as well.


Jeff Somers at B&N SCI-FI & FANTASY BLOG includes the novella among The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of June 2017.

Morrow crafts a plot that takes every unexpected twist and turn possible in less than 200 pages. It starts with the quietly mediocre farm boy Francis Wyndham, and his life-changing visit in 1913 to an exhibition of modern art. Wyndham heads to Paris and sets himself up as a North American gypsy folk artist. He fails to get much attention for his work, but is offered a job at an art therapist at an asylum run by the mysterious Dr. Caligari. Wyndham soon learns that Caligari viewed World War I as a work of art, and has created a painting imbued with strange and disturbing powers that can drive anyone who looks upon it to do his bidding. Wyndham finds it’s up to him—and a ragtag bag of misfits—to fight back against the doctor’s monstrous plans to profit at the world’s expense.

AMAZON and IO9 also include the book among their best of June selections.

For more info on THE ASYLUM OF DR. CALIGARI, visit the Tachyon page.

Cover by Elizabeth Story