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A Book Inspired By Overbrook


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“Are you seriously going to take her up to the Old Asylum? You’re crazy. For real, I don’t think she can handle it. Angela Jacobs isn’t exactly the type of girl who is going to appreciate the finer points of the sanitarium. Although, it might just scare the pants off her, I’ll give you that.”

So opens The Old Asylum And Other Stories, a new collection of fiction inspired by Overbrook, Essex County’s insane asylum from 1896 to 2007. Overbrook, located just over the Verona border in Cedar Grove, served 3,000 mentally ill patients at its height, before modern medicine reduced the need for institutionalization. It also served to scare the daylights out of several generations of area teenagers, who challenged each other to explorations of the asylum and the tuberculosis sanitorium that once stood on Verona’s Hilltop.

Wheeler Antabanez was one of those kids. No that’s not his real name, but it’s the name he adopted to write about Overbrook, the Hilltop Sanatorium and other things, especially the places that he wasn’t really supposed to be in. He’s been a featured writer for WeirdNJ for many years. He’s also the father of a recent Verona High School graduate.

“Climb through the fence of the Old Asylum. Peep through the bushes for cops. The coast is clear. Scramble up the fire escape to the fifth floor. Peel the plywood back from the doorway. Disappear into the building. Duck under the electrical wires. Hurry to the last door on the left. This is the room with the view. Walk to the window. Caress the underside of the sill with your hand.”

For Antabanez, the vast and largely secluded grounds of the Verona and Cedar Grove institutions were an “island of freedom” from school and adult authority growing up, and they, along with the Passaic River, have been his muses for the fiction he has been writing for years. He says that it is just coincidence that The Old Asylum And Other Stories has been published just as Overbrook’s buildings are being razed to make way for 460 townhouses and a new county park. “I understand the stigma of mental illness and why people would want to erase it,” Antabanez said during a Monday interview at the Verona Diner. “But I grew up here, I loved the buildings and I want to pay respect to them.”

The book features eight short stories, mostly ruminations on the fear and lure of going into forbidden spaces. (There is also one, “SIX SIX SIX”, about people driven to insanity by a book who then discover that there are no more places to treat the insane.) Antabanez is also the creator of the illustrations that bookend each chapter. He has captured the ongoing demolition of Overbrook in a series of photos on his Website and created a video based on his explorations.

“Once they were gone the Trespasser stood up, brushed the spider webs from the back of his neck and tiptoed out of the room. His fear was gone, but he wasn’t stupid. It was time to get the hell out of the buildings at least for today. Scampering down the long hallway, the Trespasser was soon out the window and into the woods. He padded lightly through the small copse of trees and caught one last glimpse of the patrol car as it exited the Old Asylum grounds. Five pictures of the morgue were tucked safely in the memory card of his digital camera. The Trespasser is happy.”

The Old Asylum And Other Stories is published by Sagging Meniscus Press, a Montclair-based publishing house. You can listen to Antabanez read several of his stories on his website. You can buy the book online, at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, or this Saturday, June 25 at The Strange Xchange, a pop-up flea market at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair. You can read more about the history and legacy of Overbrook on WeirdNJ.

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Virginia Citrano
Virginia Citranohttps://myveronanj.com
Virginia Citrano grew up in Verona. She moved away to write and edit for The Wall Street Journal’s European edition, Institutional Investor, Crain’s New York Business and Forbes.com. Since returning to Verona, she has volunteered for school, civic and religious groups, served nine years on the Verona Environmental Commission and is now part of Sustainable Verona. She co-founded MyVeronaNJ in 2009. You can reach Virginia at [email protected].


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