“Sane Asylum”

The unintended James Gunn summer project continues, this time with a look at more of his fiction.

Starting in 1992, two chapbooks of Gunn’s work were issued: The Unpublished Gunn, parts one and two.

They included nine of the 92 pieces of short fiction he had written to that date. In his introduction to part one, Gunn says he’s publishing these stories because he has a sense of unfinished business at not seeing a completed story in print. In particular, he is puzzled as to why these stories were rejected when he discerns no difference in quality between them and stories he did get published at the same time. He wants to them put before the world.

I’ll be looking at each of those nine stories individually.

Review: “Sane Asylum”, James Gunn, 1992.Uncollected Gunn 1

This was the fourth story Gunn wrote, and he says his initial ambition was to publish it in Bluebook. (Presumably this refers to Blue Book Magazine, a general fiction pulp magazine that had a long run from 1905 to 1956.)

Using the chronology of Gunn’s compositions in Michael R. Page’s Saving the World Through Science Fiction, that would mean this story was written in 1948 or 1949, so the influence of Fritz Leiber’s “Coming Attraction”, a story much admired by Gunn, is not present. Yet, despite the different subjects and themes of the two stories, both are science fiction tales that postulate social changes and little or no technological changes. Here, the only bit of advanced technology is radio earpieces worn by the attendants at Willows Mental Hospital and that look like hearing aids. In fact, Gunn’s agent, Frederik Pohl, tried to sell the piece to the non-science fiction magazine Suspense.

Gunn’s story actually is more reminiscent of Philip K. Dick though there is, of course, no direct connection given that Dick hadn’t published anything yet. But we are in a sort of similar territory with the questioning of reality.

The plot, on my first reading, seemed to fail on grounds of logic and a too obscure ending.

Our protagonist is Craig Randall, a writer. One morning he wakes up find three white-suited men at his door. They are there to take him to the Willows Mental Hospital. He’s been committed there, voluntarily committed for schizophrenia, and they have his signature on paper to prove it.

Randall’s landlord, Mrs. Jepson, confirms he signed that paper the night before. Randall’s girlfriend, Aline Meadows, was there when he did it.

En route to the hospital, there is an action interlude as Randall tries unsuccessfully to escape the ambulance. I suspect Gunn felt a need for an action sequence to appeal to the markets of the day.

On arrival at Willows for check-in, Randall meets a couple of patients. One is obviously crazy, the stereotypical patient who thinks he’s Napoleon. The other, on hearing Randall is a writer, says he’s glad to have one in the hospital since another patient, Edgar Allan Poe, died. Randall is told by the check-in secretary, who, of course, is unphased by Randall claiming he’s sane, that the other patient is Diamond Jim Brady (another historical figure and more obscure these days than Napoleon.)

As per procedure, and to prove he definitely belongs in the hospital, Randall is given a sanity test. His responds to word association tests and answers hypothetical problems. One of the hypotheticals is whether Randall would stay with a drowning girlfriend he can’t save – and die himself – or swim to safety.

Randall angrily tells the drunken doctor administering the test, he’s sane. “Of course”, replies the doctor, “That’s why you’re here.”

Randall awakens in his cell. He’s baffled as to why anyone one would go to the effort of conspiring to unjustly put him in Willows. He’s not worth any money. Any romantic rivals he has for Aline wouldn’t do this.

Out in the smoking lounge, he meets another inmate who seems lucid at first until he starts talking about mutiny and how the hospital is some kind of airship. But another inmate, a bearded man, seems something else. He tells Randall that most of the inmates here are sane except in regards to one topic or another.

The bearded man says that Randall is in the asylum because he’s sane. Someone wants Randall to doubt his sanity, and ever day some “vitally important person”, some sane person, is put in an asylum, and no longer able to “reshape the world”. He tells Randall he must hold on to his memory against the assaults which will make him question reality. And he must remember what he said or did to become imprisoned here. The bearded man, after ten years in the asylum, still does not know why he’s here.

But then the bearded man says he’s God.

So an upset Randall gets into a fight with the attendants and is put in a cell.

There he ponders something he once said: there are two kinds of people in the world – the sane and insane. He considers whether he is a schizophrenic. If so, which of his two selves, the sane or insane one, wrote his books. Pondering his answers to the hypotheticals of the sanity test, he considers what sort of evil and selfish person he is.

At this point, Gunn makes, to my mind, a philosophical error – the equation of sanity and goodness with rationality and insanity with evil and irrationality. It’s an old association but not a convincing one. After all, one can postulate all sorts of evil activity which is perfectly rational given certain goals.

Randall thinks that all sane people will believe in the innate goodness of humanity and not realize that such an insane/evil and sane/good divide exists. The insane know such a division exists, that humanity is flawed and exploit that fact. And what if the insane decided to put the sane and virtuous away?

Gunn’s logic, as personified by Randall, makes no sense. If the sane/good have a naïve view of man, they would never see the division between people. If they never see it, they pose no threat to the insane.

And is a realistic view of humanity really insane or just despairing?

We then get another action sequence with Randall trying to escape. In the process, he discovers Aline is there to visit him. Talking about the night before he was committed, Randall asks Aline if he remembers him mentioning his speculation on the division of humanity between the sane and insane. She tells him no such conversation happened. She’s disturbed by what’s happened to him. But she also says Willows was going to cure him which implies that she thinks something’s wrong with Randall. She doesn’t verbally refute his claim he didn’t sign the commitment papers, but her look to him says otherwise.

The two do escape Willows, but the story’s paranoia is notched up in the conclusion.

It is revealed that Dr. Bradley of Willows has allowed Randall to escape. Randall “needs the shock of reality” to be cured. He’ll be watched. In fact, Aline will be watching him. Randall will tell the world of his “odd delusion” and be mocked. Eventually, Randall will return to the asylum for final treatment after which he will find the world “cruel, hard, unfeeling, deaf”. Bradley almost feels sorry for Randall.

Another staff member asks Bradley if Bradley is sure he isn’t sane. Bradley denies he’s not insane.

The story ends with three white-coated men at Randall’s door.

It’s all a bit too ambiguous.

However, I didn’t appreciate some of the story’s subtlety and full paranoia until making my notes on it.

Aline’s monitoring of Randall could be innocent, a way to help him, or it could tie her to a conspiracy of the insane. Bradley’s mockery of Randall’s “odd delusion” could reinforce the idea that Randall is crazy or it could point to no one accepting that Randall’s claim is true.

Bradley says Randall roaming free will harm nothing. What is he and the Willows staff worried about not harming? Innocent people? Randall is never violent except towards the attendants. Or does Bradley mean harming the conspiracy of the insane?

Is the story’s concluding repetition of the story’s opening signifying Bradley is insane? And what is insanity according to the story? Our definition of madness or the proper way to see reality? The inmates seem looney, but why does Bradley vehemently deny he’s sane? Because he sees evil in men?

Is Gunn modifying Randall’s simple good/sane and evil/insane dichotomy to say “insanity” is really to accept the depravity of man? If so, why call that acceptance insane?

Or is the very title simply to hint that, in the future, the truly sane will find that state so uncomfortable that they will need to retreat from the world?

However, while a second reading helped me appreciate these subtleties and think the story more successful than I initially thought, I think Gunn’s story, to many editors’ eyes, foundered on too much ambiguity.

Pages says of the story:

the idea is stronger than the execution. But the story was a learning experience: the emphasis on dreams, psychology, and the social sciences would be central to Gunn’s later work.

It’s interesting to try to locate this story into the plot classification scheme of Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis. I think you would have to put it the same place as Leiber’s story: a plot of circumstance with a modern man in the modern world facing a continuing problem.

As a cultural note, the movie The Snake Pit was released on November 13, 1948. Its story of a young woman’s stay in a mental hospital may have inspired Gunn, but I have no evidence of that one way or another.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

2 thoughts on ““Sane Asylum”

  1. jameswharris August 27, 2018 / 6:48 pm

    How long was this story? Your description intrigues me. The late 1940s was a big time for movies about psychology, and there were many more movies about people in mental hospitals than just The Snake Pit. This story was probably part of that trend. Being psychoanalyzed was a huge trendy thing to do in the 1950s. Which is why this story probably reminds you of PKD, since he was part of that era.

    Was ambiguity the only problem with the story? Should it have been published? It seems odd that Gunn would want his trunk stories published.

    I got to spend a few hours with Gunn, Fred Pohl and John Brunner in the 1970s not long after The Listeners came out. Listening to them talk shop was fascinating. Gunn has always been under the radar I think. He’s should have gotten more attention. I’m glad you’re writing these posts about him. I haven’t paid attention to Gunn for decades, except for his SF research. I greatly admire his Road to Science Fiction series. And I was very surprised to see he has a trilogy out in recent years. I think I need to give it a try.

    • marzaat August 27, 2018 / 7:34 pm

      Page says it’s a 12,000 word story.

      I see Gunn mailed it off to an editor, says Page, in November 1948 so that seems too early to be inspired by The Snake Pit.

      I do have the sense that there were a lot more asylum stories in the 1940s then just The Snake Pit, but that was the only title that came readily to mind, and I was too lazy to look any others up.

      As to why Gunn wanted this story published, it was written at the same time as stuff he was publishing, so it’s not exactly a trunk story from before he was published.

      For me, the logic of the story didn’t quite work. I’m a lot more tolerant of story ambiguity than I used to be — probably because of so much recent reading of weird fiction — but I may have less of a tolerance for than most people. I don’t know.

      I envy you hearing that conversation with Gunn, Pohl, and Brunner. I’m going to see if the University of Kansas still sells copies of those documentary films Gunn did. I know Pohl and Brunner are in them.

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