An abandoned and mysterious mental asylum drives the plot of Al Cassidy’s first novel, Freeing Linhurst, a detective story set in a small Pennsylvania town. 

What’s the story behind the story? EFL had a few questions for Al…

Why the young adult genre?

While the theme of a mental institution seems like a potentially uninteresting storyline for young people, I wanted to capture the feeling of being a teenager — coming of age and really starting to understand the realities of the world. Remember the first time you realized that adults don’t actually know ev-er-y-thing?? That’s partly what the characters are going through here.

As a first-time author, what was the biggest surprise in writing a novel?

I didn’t set out to actually write a novel — I was hoping to illustrate a graphic novel, but I had to flesh out the narrative, which led to a thick manuscript I had to edit aggressively to get it to the final 320 page book. In the end, not only was it not a graphic novel, it only contains chapter heading illustrations.

Is Linhurst based on a real asylum?

Yes, it’s based on the very real (and supposedly very haunted) Pennhurst State School and Hospital just up the river in Spring City. Today, many know it as the place with the haunted attraction (which is setup in the former Administration Building, one of about 30 buildings on the property). It’s a long-abandoned asylum near my hometown that has stood as a dark mark on the entire area. The rundown campus and ever-deteriorating buildings made the place a source of endless ghost stories and neighborhood myths.

You’ve said your first trip to Pennhurst was unforgettable and a rite of passage. What exactly made it so dramatic?

The first time I went wasn’t dramatic at all. In fact it was mostly uneventful. I always thought that if I found myself in the back of a police cruiser and was brought home to my parents, it would have been a memory about being arrested; that would have overshadowed the real story.

What made it a rite of passage was the fear I felt before exploring the place – I’d heard stories from older kids about padded rooms, a dentist chair with blood all over it, and keys they’d found to locked doors on the campus. But worst of all was the stories of the pitch black and haunted underground tunnels that connect all the buildings throughout the property. That got me very nervous. Overcoming those fears and daring to go behind those walls, even though nothing eventful happened, was enough to give me confidence and earn some respect from my friends.

Did you ever see any ghosts or have any supernatural experiences there?

One autumn afternoon I found myself standing just inside the entrance of the tunnel system under the generating station (the building on the cover of the book). I couldn’t see any further than a few feet in front of me, even with a flashlight. All by myself and feeling fairly brave (I’d explored there enough to feel like I had a handle on the realities of the place), I remember saying out loud, “This isn’t as bad as I remember.”

Just then, I caught a faceful of wind. Before I could even think, “That was odd,” I heard something that sounded like a voice letting out a breath. I hightailed it out of there—literally couldn’t run any faster over the broken glass and debris–convinced I never needed to go in there ever again.

Any advice for first-time authors?

Do: Be patient with writing and write what you enjoy, what’s important to you, and write to tell a story you would read — it’s the only way you’ll enjoy the process.

Don’t: write to make money and seek fame . . . you have better chances playing the lottery.

Do you have another project in the works? Any details you’d like to share?

I still want to create that graphic novel. I have so many stories in my head, they’re like a crowd of characters and plots pushing their way through a subway station hoping to get to the street level. Everything from magical creatures to a twist on my own life story, I’m constantly thinking about what could energize me most to create a story people would want to read.

Finding “Freeing Linhurst”

The book is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. You can learn more about it at FreeingLinhurst.com.