(2016) M. R. Carey, Orbit, £7.99, pbk, 486pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50360-8
A brutally violent uncompromising horror story about a ghost haunting a women’s maximum security prison automatically promises to end in bloodshed and Carey certainly delivers on that.
Young Jess (Jessica Moulson) is sent there over the death by fire of a young boy while she was wacked out of her skull on heroin. She is badly disfigured herself from the fire. She thinks she might have started the blaze herself in a suicide attempt, but her lawyers suspect her boyfriend had more to do with the events than Jess admits or even realizes. He escaped the blaze unscathed apart from his burnt hands. Jess doesn’t care however, as a child died due to her habit so she throws her own defence case aside, pleads guilty and enters the prison on a death wish hunger strike.
Even without doing anything, and already close to death, Jess is making enemies among the prison’s drug-smuggling community especially as the boy who died seems to be able to get inside the heads of the inmates and mess badly with their dreams and deepest fears.
As Jess, inspired by supernatural forces, draws herself free from her death wish, others start planning to kill her, while another career criminal, Grace, the self-appointed queen of the block, uses Jess’s court hearings as an excuse to turn the poor vulnerable girl into a drug mule, bringing packages in for her.
In her journeys outside, Jess realizes that the boy’s ghost has no effect on minds outside the Fellside prison itself, while she would expect the child to haunt either her or the scene of his death. She begins to realize that the ghost may not be who he claims to be at all. Who he / she / it proves to be will be quite a surprise to the readers.
An odd touch is the junior lawyer with a sexual attraction to Jess. The character of Gallagher in Carey’s previous novel The Girl With All The Gifts had a similar struggle with his desires, which lead to his death. Here, however, the lawyer is simply dismissed with a polite no thanks that renders the long thread of his attraction rather anti-climactic.
Jess is an intriguing character, who spends the first half of the novel in a self-inflicted coma, drowning in her own guilt.
Where the story weakens is in the fragmentation of the case surrounding her boyfriend and events in the Fellside complex itself, which involves contriving for Jess to be moved like a chess pawn from within to without the prison. Even once the mystery of how the fire is resolved and Jess seems free it is necessary to have her back inside the prison, which is achieved by having her confess to a murder she committed (in self-defence) inside. She is immediately put back inside, no questions or investigation started. It is much more likely she would have been isolated pending a very intense investigation into the prison.
The claustrophobic prison itself is the true star of the novel, an isolated moorland Hell, already erupting in corruption and violent riot before the heroin-heroine arrives there. The inmates are very memorable and credible characters, each with dark secrets the ghost will expose as it seems to protect Jess from everyone, though it might be assumed that she would be the one person it had any reason to haunt.
Jess plays detective well in thinking through the facts of the case that put her away though had she co-operated with her lawyers from the outset she might never have ended up in Fellside. Her martyrdom complex and sense that she somehow deserves her suffering and pain from threats, beatings and use as a trafficker drives her until her friendly ghost convinces her that she is reading things very wrong. She may have an even bigger sacrifice to make however in her mission to save someone despite the fact that they are already dead.
The finale is spectacular, a massacre to compare with that at the conclusion of Stephen King’s Carrie. Despite its few flaws this is a very impressive horror tale and character story.
See also Ian's take on Fellside.
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