Prisoner Cell Block RIP
released 7 April 496 pages | Hardback/ ebook
Author MR Carey
Prisons are fertile ground for horror writers – though perhaps it’s not quite right to describe Fellside as a horror novel. There’s a ghost, true, and protagonist Jess – convicted of killing a child after she burns down her apartment while under the influence of heroin – isn’t exactly beloved of her fellow inmates. While MR Carey doesn’t overdo the clichéd prison brutality, he doesn’t shy away from the nasty side of life behind bars either; the prisoners have a clearly defined social structure and anyone stepping out of line risks severe injury or even being murdered. Yet for all that, Fellside has a dreamlike quality that means on the whole it’s intriguing rather than frightening.
The reader first encounters Jess in hospital, badly burned and with no memory of the night of the fire in which her young neighbour died. Despite being the most prominent person in the story, she’s probably the least tangible element in it – not quite all there, and trying to change from what she was before she went to prison, so even her personality is in flux. Thanks to the fire, she doesn’t even have the face she remembers. When Jess makes contact with the ghost in Fellside prison, Alex, she’s convinced it’s not real. Yet you never really feel in any doubt that it is. This isn’t a book that teases you with ambiguity about the supernatural. Alex is as real as prisoner Harriet Grace’s drugs smuggling operation and control of Fellside’s maximum security wing. Jess is the one in a state of uncertainty.
The real horror doesn’t come from the ghost, and the real nastiness isn’t found within the majority of the inmates. Harriet Grace and her cronies aside, most of the other prisoners seem fairly benign towards Jess. The people in control, however, are at best weak and at worst actively malevolent. That’s nothing new in a story about prisons – the cruel guard is a staple – but their relationships with each other are as important as their relationship to Jess. Moreover, the cruelties and corruption are all individual and kept in character: Devlin, a particularly brutal guard, revels in it; the doctor despairs of what he’s become under Devlin’s influence; and the nurse lies to herself about her aims and intentions. Seeing the intertwining lives of these other characters definitely helps the narrative, as the prisoners’ existence is, naturally, one of dull routine, and were the story to follow Jess alone the pace would feel rather leaden.
Fellside has a couple of weaknesses. The first is the depiction of the dreamworld in which Jess first encounters the ghost: while she’s dying on hunger strike, it brings her back into a strange, shifting place. After that, she’s able to see it at other times too; and when she’s asleep, she can enter other people’s dreams with Alex. In reducing something like this to words you risk either making it appear banal ( see Harry Potter’s heavenly waiting room) or trying too hard to be weird ( It’s giant turtle). Carey can’t really win here, but does wisely keep the dreamworld sequences to a minimum, usually bringing Alex into Jess’s world instead.
The other problem is that the plot is fairly predictable. You’ll anticipate the result of Jess’s appeal against her conviction long before it comes, and you’ll understand Alex’s true nature a lot sooner than Jess does. That said, being able to anticipate a great deal of the story doesn’t ruin your satisfaction; rather it gives the plot a sense of inevitability, just as in a classical tragedy. When events reach their conclusion, you feel things have gone the only way they could – that this was fate. More twists and surprises would have been welcome, but on the whole this is a solid and enjoyable read.
Fancy visiting a real haunted prison? You can take a tour of the now- abandoned HMP Ashwell: http:// bit. ly/ 1Xfcwrc.
On the whole it’s intriguing rather than frightening