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Suzette Mayr: How the confluence of mental-health issues and an affinity for horror novels led to my latest book

Frontmatter_JulyAugust_SuzetteMayr_AuthorPhotoI have always enjoyed campus novels. Robertson Davies’s The Rebel Angels is probably the best-known Canadian example, but my favourites are books like David Lodge’s Changing Places – chain-smoking, sexy professors living sexy lives on foreign soil. And Lynn Coady’s Mean Boy – about a particularly awful creative-writing professor – made me laugh until my teeth hurt because it was so scarily true.

A few years ago The Guardian ran a series called Mental Health: A University Crisis, about the prevalence of mental-health issues among university students, and to a lesser extent, university professors and instructors. I’ve taught at a few universities and colleges since the early 1990s and can attest that nervous breakdowns happen to post-secondary professors and instructors too.

I had a colleague who walked out of a class he was teaching midway through and never came back. I know this because the same Tuesday nights, I taught a class next door. That particular evening, one of his students tentatively knocked on my classroom door. “Professor X hasn’t returned from his break,” the student said, shifting uncomfortably. “Go home,” I told his class, and dismissing mine early, I went hunting for my missing colleague. He had locked himself in his office, in the dark. He peered mistrustingly through a crack in his door only after my third knock, when I called out his name. He came out of the office and looked up at me. “Are you all right?” I asked. “Is there anything I can do?” “This is not a good place,” he whispered, before retreating back into darkness.

Almost as alarming as my colleague’s mental health crisis was the response of other teaching and administrative staff. “Oh, it’s happened before,” they said.

There’s an insidious undercurrent to contemporary post-secondary life. And because professors are seen as part of a privileged class, there’s little sympathy when one of them feels overwhelmed by the job and feelings of anxiety and insecurity because of an increasingly corporatized university environment. As an extra bonus, the brutalist architecture that features on so many university campuses is reaching its expiry date, and these often stark concrete buildings, starting to crumble, are literally being designated as “sick.” Little wonder some people who work in them are suffering ill health too.

While researching horror novels for my PhD thesis, I began considering what a “sick” building might mean, particularly in light of some of the best lines ever in the opening paragraph of a horror novel: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. She writes, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills; holding darkness within.” I had never considered a “not sane” building before. The first human character Jackson’s narrator introduces is Dr. John Montague, who has rented Hill House in order to investigate “the causes and effects of psychic disturbances in a house commonly known as ‘haunted.’” He essentially turns the “not sane” Hill House into a campus laboratory, engaging four “assistants” to help him with his research by living in the house for three months, even though no visitor who’s ever stayed in the house has lasted longer than a few days.

I thought: Why not a troubled-campus novel that’s also a “not sane” haunted house novel? What about Professor X? And so I began writing the manuscript that became Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall.

As I wrote, I considered that while a university building is not a house per se, a campus can resemble a home or home away from home, and the people who work and learn there a kind of family. But a campus will always be an unsettled home, no matter how vigorously a university administration might prevail on its employees and students to be a family or coherent community. The university family is often dysfunctional, as shown in so many campus novels. Additionally, the relatively new use of the business model as a way of running post-secondary institutions can result in contradictory – and often clashing – goals that make being an effective professor challenging. And sometimes heart-breaking, as in the case of my colleague Professor X, whom I know cared deeply about his students and his work.

The Guardian once ran a review that implored writers to stop writing campus novels. “Writers should stay out of academia” and “a moratorium is overdue” the article said.

It’s not time for writers to stay out of academia. It’s time we broke down the asylum doors.

Suzette Mayr is the author of four previous novels. Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall is published by Coach House Books.