Haunting Horror Straight Out of the Asylum

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Baristanet readers know him as an expert on the Passaic River, but the imagination of Wheeler Antabanez runs deeper and darker than that venerable, yet poisoned river. His new book The Old Asylum And Other Stories, published by Sagging Meniscus, is populated by a mischievous teenage couple on the edge of falling in love, a boy obsessed with Halloween, an otherworldly graffiti artist and a doctor tormented by treating his lover who has gone insane from reading a book.

All of these stories share another dark, defiled New Jersey institution–the Overbrook Mental Hospital and the abandoned Tuberculosis Sanatorium that once stood on the Hilltop property in Cedar Grove. Antabanez gets his inspiration from his past–as a youth he played in the complex’s abandoned, crumbling buildings.

Antabanez, a veteran Weird NJ correspondent shows he has the chops to spin haunting, creepy yarns with hints of Stephen King and Flannery O’Connor. There are nine short offerings in The Old Asylum And Other Stories. You’ll encounter more unsettling horror in the 18 portraits of the Overbrook Sanitarium, painted by Antabanez and captioned with snippets of recollections from former employees and staff members, news clips and inmate letters. The book concludes with an interview of Antabanez recalling how he used to troll the grounds of the sanitarium with his friends.

“My favorite tale in the book is the title story The Old Asylum.” says Antabanez. “It’s about a high school couple who go up to the abandoned hospital and sit on the roof to watch the sunset. It’s the story I reread the most because it captures the mood of both the Essex Mountain Sanatorium and Overbrook. There was a certain spooky magic on the Hilltop that has been lost forever, but I can still revisit those feelings I had as a child every time I pick up the book.”

The best place to read this well-paced book might be the beach because The Old Asylum has a way of creeping into your imagination and festering. What better antiseptic than sunlight?

Overbrook Asylum was built in 1896 occupying 325 acres in what is now Cedar Grove. The complex was huge and had a farm, which produced most of the food eaten at the hospital, as well as its own train stop, bakery, firehouse and even a semi-professional baseball team. In addition to the mental hospital the complex also housed the Mountain Sanatorium originally used to care for tuberculosis patients and later used to treat wayward children and drug abusers. The introduction of psychological medications in the 1960s and 70s drastically changed how mental health was treated and marked the beginning of the end for Overbrook. As patient populations diminished, the huge complex scaled back in the late twentieth century, abandoning many of its buildings until the hospital finally closed in 2007. To learn more, check out this Weird NJ article.

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Demolition of the complex, which began in 2002, is reaching its conclusion as the old hospital buildings come down to make way for housing developments. (Remember Steven Spielberg’s 1982 Poltergeist?) For a neat documentary of the hospital click here. See some great images of the demolition by clicking here

Wheeler Antabanez will be at the Strange Exchange at the Wellmont Theater on June 25. Purchase The Old Asylum at Watchung Booksellers.

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