Pris­oner Cell Block RIP

SFX - - Reviews - Miriam McDon­ald

re­leased 7 April 496 pages | Hard­back/ ebook

Au­thor MR Carey

Pub­lisher Or­bit

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

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