McGrath, Patrick 1950–

views updated

McGrath, Patrick 1950–

PERSONAL: Surname is pronounced "McGraw"; born February 7, 1950, in London, England; son of Patrick (a psychiatrist and hospital superintendent) and Helen (O'Brien) McGrath; married; wife's name Maria Aitken. Education: University of London, B.A. (with honors), 1971; attended Simon Fraser University.

ADDRESSES: Home and office—21 E. 2nd St., #10, New York, NY 10003. Agent—Eric Ashworth, 231 W. 22nd St., New York, NY 10011.

CAREER: Writer. Media Dimensions, New York City, managing editor of Speech Technology magazine, 1982–87. Worked at Broadmoor mental institution in England; worked at mental institution in Canada; taught in British Columbia.

AWARDS, HONORS: Bram Stoker Award nomination, Horror Writers of America, 1998, for Asylum.


The Lewis and Clark Expedition (nonfiction), Silver Burdett (Morristown, NJ), 1985.

Blood and Water and Other Tales, Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1988.

The Grotesque (novel), Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1989.

Spider (novel), Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1990.

(Editor with Bradford Morrow) The New Gothic: A Collection of Contemporary Gothic Fiction, Random House (New York, NY), 1991, published as The Picador Book of the New Gothic, Picador (London, England), 1992.

Dr. Haggard's Disease (novel), Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1993.

The Angel and Other Stories, Penguin (London, England), 1995.

Asylum, Random House (New York, NY), 1997.

Martha Peake: A Novel of the Revolution, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.

Port Mungo, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.

Ghost Town: Tales of Manhattan Then and Now (short stories), Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2005.


The Grotesque (based on his novel), J&M Entertainment, 1995.

Spider (based on his novel), Sony Pictures Classics, 2002.

Author of introduction to Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1999. Work appears in anthologies, including Between C & D: New Writing from the Lower East Side Fiction Magazine, Penguin, 1988. Contributor to Confrontation, New York Times, Missouri Review, The Quarterly, and other periodicals. Contributing editor to the magazines Bomb and Between C and D.

SIDELIGHTS: Patrick McGrath is the author of a number of Neo-Gothic novels and stories that have earned him comparisons to such notable writers as H.P. Lovecraft, Ian McEwan, and Edgar Allan Poe. The grotesque and macabre fascinate McGrath, as does mental pathology of all sorts; his central characters are often quite familiar with psychosis and obsessive longing, and they may act upon their most bizarre beliefs. A Publishers Weekly correspondent cited McGrath for "a mind that revels in the toxic side of things." Tim Woods, writing in Contemporary Novelists, found that McGrath "is a novelist whose fiction interestingly explores a wide range of ideas in a condensed space, and he has breathed new and vigorous life into the well-trodden paths of the Gothic and mystery genres."

Born in London, England, McGrath grew up on the grounds of Broadmoor, an institution for the criminally insane where his father was a superintendent. In a Publishers Weekly interview, Michael Coffey noted: "Broadmoor is home to England's most violent and disturbed killers, and yet McGrath recalls the trustees working in the family garden, with his mother delivering tea in the afternoon. He remembers playing with some of the patients and endlessly watching others." When asked by Coffey about his affinity for the Gothic style, McGrath mused: "At first I think I was attracted purely to the furniture of [G]othic fiction,… the crumbling mansions, the dripping cellars, the gloomy attics…. Quite why it clicked I don't know. Certainly as I began to work in the genre the interest in purely [G]othic effects began to fade and I became much more intrigued in the application of [G]othic mood to states of mind, to extreme states of psychological disturbance."

McGrath's first book, Blood and Water and Other Tales, illustrates his penchant for mixing the grotesque and the comic. Parodies of the typical Gothic tale—distinguished by mysterious or bizarre episodes and remote, gloomy settings—McGrath's stories are populated by characters such as a miniature Sigmund Freud who drives a man mad, people with pernicious anemia who crave human blood, and a proper English gentleman who is eventually strangled by a hand that grows out of his head. New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani commented: "Severed hands, dead monkeys, swarming insects, pickled body parts and menacing pygmies proliferate in Blood and Water." The reviewer went on to compare McGrath's stories to Brian DePalma's horror movies, because "not only do they share those movies' baroque romanticism and their tendency to mix up narrative conventions in an expressionistic, post-modern stew, but they also share a similar preoccupation with sex and guilt, violence and death." In the Georgia Review, Greg Johnson declared that McGrath's tales "collectively offer a brilliant pastiche not only of the conventional Gothic but of such modern obsessions as sexuality, psychoanalysis, and the nature of storytelling." McGrath was also praised for his prose, which, according to New York Times Book Review contributor Stephen Schiff, "gushes and twirls, winding around itself in thick, wordy coils." Although some reviewers found the collection to be of uneven quality, Chicago Tribune Books contributor John Blades concluded: "At their grotesque best, they are diabolically funny parables about the bestial excesses of modern life, which stalk the narrow border dividing man from animal, civilization from savagery." And, according to Kakutani, McGrath has "an ability to invest his narratives with a disturbing psychological subtext. Combined with his Gothic imagination and dark, splenetic humor, the result is fiction that can be as powerful as it is strange."

McGrath incorporated many of the same elements from his stories—gruesome images, Gothic settings, and dark humor—into his first novel, The Grotesque. The title is derived from the narrator, Sir Hugo Coal, an Englishman who is rendered quadriplegic and unable to speak after an accident. Susan Kenney quoted one of Sir Hugo's musings in the New York Times Book Review: "I have come to believe that to be a grotesque is my destiny. For a man who turns into a vegetable—isn't that a grotesque?" Sir Hugo, a paleontologist who theorizes that dinosaurs are closely related to birds, feels that his misfortune is due to the arrival of his new butler, Fledge, and his wife, Doris. Sir Hugo believes that Fledge, in an attempt to become master of the house, seduced Lady Coal and tried to kill him, accounting for his current state. He also contends that Fledge murdered his daughter's fiance and fed the corpse's bones to the pigs, a murder that Sir Hugo is accused of committing.

Reviewers observed that the reader begins to doubt Sir Hugo's reliability as a narrator—has the accident affected his memory? Is he mad? Or is he lying? Washington Post critic Michael Dirda commented on McGrath's approach: "Though a shivery whodunit on the surface, The Grotesque really thrills as a study in narrative technique." Kakutani called the book "a coy yet compelling horror story that functions as a superb example of the [Gothic] genre, even as it's sending that genre up." Writing in the St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers, Chris Morgan judged that The Grotesque "is also a black comedy and comes close to being a farce that parodies the gothic."

Like The Grotesque, Spider is told by an unreliable narrator. He is Dennis "Spider" Cleg, a schizophrenic who is released from a mental hospital after twenty years and returns to his childhood neighborhood in London's East End. In this environment, memories of an abusive, adulterous father and loving mother come flooding back to him. Though he is accused of killing his mother, Spider recounts in his journal how his father and a prostitute committed the crime and tried to kill him as well. As his journal progresses, a portrait of a fragile, disturbed man emerges—and what is truth and what is delusion becomes unclear. "McGrath's interest is not in guilt or innocence," Chicago Tribune Books contributor Margot Mifflin noted, "but in the grim reality of Spider's tangled mind, which is precisely where the author's most arabesque talents are employed." The author commented on his approach in the interview with Coffey: "I would say that my working model in all my books is that we don't see clearly, we don't see objectively, and the reason is that perception is always biased by guilt or desire or madness. I'm interested in characters whose negotiations with reality are disturbed."

Critics noted that Spider is quite different from McGrath's earlier works; it is less darkly humorous, and "absent are the ambiguous sexual orientations, fantastic appendages, the meditations on the sex lives of flies," remarked Coffey. McGrath concentrates little on the macabre; he explained in the interview with Coffey that "the horror [of Spider] is somehow implicit in the illness rather than being present in formal terms." Some critics, however, felt the novel was not horrific enough; "Spider is a thriller, of sorts, as well as a psychological case study and a gem of self-conscious prose. The only thing it lacks, to give it true thriller status, is the thrill of terror," commented Wendy Lesser in the Washington Post Book World. But Kakutani praised Spider: "The writing is spare, direct and understated—an approach that actually serves to heighten the narrative's grisly effects. Spider is a small classic of horror—a model of authorial craft and control."

A macabre tale of obsessional love unfolds in McGrath's novel Dr. Haggard's Disease. Dr. Edward Haggard, a morphine-addicted general practice doctor in a seaside community, relives his adulterous passion for a colleague's wife when the woman's son comes to call. Dr. Haggard becomes convinced that his lover's spirit has inhabited her son's body—especially after the son begins to show signs of sexual androgyny. "This wonderful and ghastly novel … sends us once more into a world as grisly and swollen with malignant intent as the background of a Francis Bacon painting," declared Liza Pennywitt Taylor in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "Dr. Haggard's Disease abounds with creepy, kinky details which, if they had been turned up a degree or two higher in camp intensity, could have been hilarious, as they are in Grotesque…. In this new book they subtly work to create a world of dark apprehension."

A number of reviewers cited Dr. Haggard's Disease for its exploitation of the Gothic, including a crumbling cliffside manor and the narrator's willed descent into madness. To quote Ann Arensberg in the New York Times Book Review, McGrath "feels no compulsion to invent a better mousetrap: the Gothic horror tale is a proven vehicle for exploring the perversities of the human mind and heart and for portraying extreme states of feeling. Its atmosphere of gloom, its structure that builds to a calamity, are well suited to the author's enterprise: the study of a diseased passion." Arensberg concluded: "As Dr. Haggard's Disease demonstrates, the Gothic genre, far from being restrictive, is as capacious as the mind of the writer employing it. Patrick McGrath has produced a myth of the creator sacrificed to his creation, a novel in which—as in its Gothic predecessors—the terrible and the beautiful are melded, one and the same." In the Times Literary Supplement, M. John Harrison likewise observed that Dr. Haggard's Disease "is a rapid, elegant tour of the New Gothic sensibility, 'horror, madness, monstrosity, death, disease, terror, evil, and weird sexuality,' each landmark given an impeccable sense of its historical niche and significance."

With his novel Asylum, McGrath muted his Gothic instincts to produce a story that—while still shocking and grisly—deals with irrational passion and its consequences. Narrated by a state psychiatrist who has his own dubious role in the tale, Asylum describes an illicit affair between a doctor's wife and a criminally insane hospital inmate. Needless to say, the affair produces nightmare results for the woman, who winds up committed to an institution. In the New Statesman, Julie Wheelwright called Asylum "a subtly menacing portrait of 1950s hospital life gone desperately wrong." The reviewer continued: "With its pared-down plot, attention to period detail and focus on internal events, the novel creates powerful suspense…. The pleasure of McGrath's fiction lies, however, in his refusal to be predictable. He pulls the tension taut until the final page and creates that rare thing, a chillingly good read."

"It is part of McGrath's bemusing artfulness in Asylum that he can make the reader suffer the fate of all of his characters …," wrote Adam Phillips in a London Review of Books piece on the novel. "But what makes Asylum so compelling—both gripping and horribly funny—is McGrath's mordant knowingness about the obvious points…. It is McGrath's acute sense that everyone's language is the archest rhetoric, a performance bristling with intent, that makes Asylum so tricky and unsettling." Kakutani also praised the work in her New York Times review, noting that Asylum "not only emerges as [McGrath's] most polished performance to date, but also stands as a distillation of his preoccupations: his Freudian equation of sex and death, of control and obsession, and his fascination with the morbid and grotesque." Kakutani concluded: "By pushing familiar passions to extremes and by glossing familiar psychological concepts with religious notions of sin and guilt and redemption, Mr. McGrath has managed to construct a chilling story that works as both a Freudian parable and an old-fashioned gothic shocker."

Martha Peake: A Novel of the Revolution is, according to Wilda Williams in the Library Journal, another of the author's "twisted neo-Gothic tales of psychological suspense." The novel opens on a storm-tossed night in 1825 within Drogo Hall, an imposing gothic mansion falling into ruin on the outskirts of London. As the night progresses, narrator Ambrose Tree listens to his uncle, William, tell the grotesque story of Harry Peake and his sixteen-year-old daughter, Martha. Harry is an ex-smuggler whose spine has been hideously twisted and crushed in an accident; he makes a meager living showing off his deformities as the Cripplegate Monster in the lower pubs of London. Harry's exhibitions draw the attention of Lord Drogo, previous lord of the manor, an anatomist interested in Harry not for his showmanship or his fledgling talent with song, but for his skeleton, which would make a prize research piece. Meanwhile, Drogo's assistant, the current Uncle William, develops a deep infatuation with Martha Peake, which is not returned. When Harry attacks Martha in a drunken rage, she flees to Drogo Hall, where William is happy to protect her, locked in a room in a remote turret. Eventually, he helps her escape London and flee to the American colonies, where she becomes involved in the American Revolution and is made into a symbol of the independence of the new America. Turning on the device of the unreliable narrator, the novel leaves many questions unanswered as Ambrose finds himself courting madness through speculating on the unresolved history related by his uncle, who may have other plans of his own for his nephew and the family manse. Rex Roberts, writing in Insight on the News, called the novel "a fascinating book, as are all of McGrath's, if only for the sheer pleasure of watching a masterful writer work his craft."

McGrath's Port Mungo is the "psychologically suspenseful story" of Jack Rathbone, who departs his native England, Gaugin-like, to take up a career as a painter and pursue a relationship with artist Vera Savage. Told in a series of flashbacks by Rathbone's sister, Gin, the story tells how Jack settled in Port Mungo, a Honduran seaside town, and developed his unique style of painting. When Jack and Vera's daughter, Peg, is born, the child's arrival threatens their marriage. When Peg dies a mysterious death sixteen rocky years later, the couple's relationship is destroyed, and Jack moves in with his sister in New York. As the story unfolds, the truth of Peg's death is revealed, and Jack's role in the tragedy becomes clear. Elaina Richardson, writing in O, the Oprah Magazine, observed that "the outstanding feature of McGrath's storytelling is his ability to write with tranquil, evocative beauty about the vilest of subjects." The story is haunting, Richardson observed, because "we see so completely how damaging the most basic human emotions can be."

Ghost Town: Tales of Manhattan Then and Now attempts to "capture the restless spirit of New York City through the ages in an elegant and compact trio of spooky stories," noted reviewer Jennifer Reese in Entertainment Weekly. In "Year of the Gibbet," a boy in the Revolutionary era must watch as his mother is forced to strip for a haughty British soldier, who later hangs her. The main character in "Julius" is an art-class model whose appearance in the nude sparks an unhealthy obsession in an unstable student and leads to the downfall of his once-powerful family. "Ground Zero" features a psychiatrist, another of McGrath's unreliable narrators, who tells the story of a patient's bizarre affair with a prostitute following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The three works explore McGrath's trademark themes of "obsession, madness, and transgression," observed Library Journal contributor Patrick Sullivan, who called the book a "dark, ambitious portrait of a complex and storied city" where millions of tales can be found.

In an interview with the Guardian, McGrath said he tended not to take the "New Gothic" label too seriously. The Gothic, he observed, is "generally all about power." With its emphasis on secrecy, its dependence upon nighttime action, its subversion of good and noble impulses, the genre is interested in "states of mind that are other than sober, thrifty, and industrious." McGrath once told CA: "I am interested in the dark and hidden areas of human nature and how they have been represented in fiction. My work comments upon the Gothic fiction of the past while using the genre as a vehicle for my own ideas."



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 55, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.

Contemporary Novelists, 7th Edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.

McGrath, Patrick, The Grotesque, Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1989.

St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.


Booklist, April 15, 1993, William Beatty, review of Dr. Haggard's Disease, p. 493; December 1, 1996, Donna Seaman, review of Asylum, p. 620.

Christian Science Monitor, January 29, 1991, Thomas D'Evelyn, review of Spider, p. 14.

Entertainment Weekly, May 28, 1993, Margot Mifflin, review of Dr. Haggard's Disease, p. 61; March 7, 1997, Margot Mifflin, review of Asylum, p. 60; August 26, 2005, review of Ghost Town, p. 64.

Georgia Review, winter, 1988, Greg Johnson, review of Blood and Water, p. 840.

Guardian, May 8, 1993, Patrick Wright, "A Night in a Ghoulish Tunnel," profile of Patrick McGrath, p. 28.

Insight on the News, March 12, 2001, Rex Roberts, review of Martha Peake: A Novel of the Revolution, p. 26.

Library Journal, April 15, 1993, Lawrence Rungren, review of Dr. Haggard's Disease, p. 126; February 1, 1997, Starr E. Smith, review of Asylum, p. 106; October 1, 2000, Wilda Williams, review of Martha Peake, p. 148; July 1, 2005, Patrick Sullivan, review of Ghost Town, p. 74.

London Review of Books, October 31, 1996, Adam Phillips, review of Asylum, p. 7.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 20, 1993, Liza Pennywitt Taylor, review of Dr. Haggard's Disease, p. 3.

New Statesman, October 16, 1992, pp. 39-40; September 13, 1996, July Wheelwright, review of Asylum, p. 48.

New Statesman & Society, October 16, 1992, Robert Carver, review of The Picador Book of the New Gothic, p. 39; May 21, 1993, p. 37.

Newsweek, May 31, 1993, David Gates, review of Dr. Haggard's Disease, p. 55.

New Yorker, January 27, 1997, John Lanchester, review of Asylum, p. 78; February 24, 1997, Liesl Schillinger, "Letting the Snakes Out," profile of Patrick McGrath, p. 52.

New York Times, February 24, 1988, Michiko Kakutani, review of Blood and Water, p. C25; April 21, 1989, Michiko Kakutani, review of The Grotesque, p. B4; October 9, 1990, Michiko Kakutani, review of Spider, p. 17; February 14, 1997, Michiko Kakutani, review of Asylum, p. C38.

New York Times Book Review, March 6, 1988, Steven Schiff, review of Blood and Water, p. 6; May 28, 1989, Susan Kenendy, review of The Grotesque, p. 7; March 8, 1992, Jack Sullivan, review of The New Gothic, p. 12; May 2, 1993, Ann Arensberg, review of Dr. Haggard's Disease, p. 7; February 23, 1997, Michael Wood, review of Asylum, p. 6.

O, the Oprah Magazine, June, 2004, Elaina Richardson, "Too Close for Comfort: Port Mungo Brilliantly Explores Family, Love, and Lust, p. 146.

People, March 31, 1997, Adam Begley, review of Asylum, p. 37.

Publishers Weekly, September 28, 1990, Michael Coffey, "Patrick McGrath: A Purveyor of the Fantastic Makes a Foray into Madness," interview with Patrick McGrath, pp. 82-83; March 22, 1993, review of Dr. Haggard's Disease, p. 70; December 16, 1996, review of Asylum, p. 41; June 7, 2004, review of Port Mungo, p. 31.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 1989, Irving Malin, review of The Grotesque, p. 221; spring, 1991, Irving Malin, review of Spider, p. 329.

School Library Journal, March, 2003, Renee Steinberg, review of The Lewis and Clark Expedition, p. 172.

Spectator, August 17, 1996, Philip Hensher, review of Asylum, p. 24.

Times Literary Supplement, April 26, 1991, Tim Gooderham, review of Spider, p. 18; October 9, 1992, M. John Harrison, review of The Picador Book of the New Gothic, p. 23; May 14, 1993, M. John Harrison, review of Dr. Haggard's Disease, p. 22; August 23, 1996, David Flusfeder, review of Asylum, p. 22.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), October 14, 1990, review of Spider, p. 6.

Variety, February 21, 2005, Eddie Cockrell, film review of Asylum, p. 26.

Washington Post, June 5, 1989, Michael Dirda, review of The Grotesque.

Washington Post Book World, October 14, 1990, Wendy Lesser, review of Spider, p. 6.

About this article

McGrath, Patrick 1950–

Updated About content Print Article