It’s a beautifully crafted story, probably too slow for many tastes, but I enjoyed this prison world immensely.
The new novel by MR Carey “Fellside” crept up on me rather unexpectedly; I had never heard of it until stumbling upon it on a random Amazon search. I had been a huge fan of his earlier zombie/post-apocalyptic novel “The Girl With All The Gifts” (TGWATG). This cracking read came to my attention when it was shortlisted for the rather excellent James Herbert Award for debut horror fiction, which was eventually won by Nick Cutter’s “The Troop”. Readers who don’t know the books nominated here really should check it out, Josh Mallerman’s “Birdbox” is another stunner on the same list I adored. The fact that Carey was featured on that ‘debut’ shortlist was rather misleading as he had published many other novels under his pseudo name Mike Carey and was the author and resident writer of many comics, graphic novels and screenplays. For such a prolific writer he has certainly flown well under my radar until I read TGWATG.
“Fellside” had a different flavour to it and for a 500 pager I whizzed through it, starting on a Thursday evening and finishing in on Sunday. Obviously to read a chunky novel that quickly it was not duff and had a great hook to keep you turning that page. Some Amazon reviews call it “literary fiction”, maybe, but in reality, it was a good old-fashioned page-turner.
Jess wakes up in a hospital, handcuffed, with little memories of what went before. We quickly realise she is a heroin addict who is being charged with the murder of a child from a family who lived in the flat above her. She was also seriously burned in the same fire and has spent ages in a coma recovering. While she has been ill, because of the death of the child, the media has built her up as a hate figure, a “child murderer” before she has been tried and convicted. Her reconstructed face makes her look like a real freak, some china doll when she is released into general prison population after her inevitable conviction.
You could very fairly argue that there was very little horror, and even less supernatural elements, in the first half of the novel. After the conviction, Jess almost starves herself to death while on hunger strike as she sees no point in living. At the point of death, she has some sort of vision which she thinks is the ghost of the dead boy, and this prompts her to start an appeal, not for herself, but to find truly out what happened to the kid. Helping the ghost in some way. It is at this stage supernatural elements begin to filter into the novel, and it moves into the realms of a more traditional ghost story. The prison itself “Fellside” is a fantastically atmospheric creation, almost a character itself, set in a remote part of Yorkshire.
Carey spends a lot of time creating a life in prison, and there are lots of other characters with decent size parts, from her cell mate to the guards, the doctors, drug-dealers and the self-harming lawyer who adores Jess and leads her appeal. When the appeal begins more of the backstory behind the fire, her life, addiction, and boyfriend are revealed as is the motives of the ghost. It’s a beautifully crafted story, probably too slow for many tastes, but I enjoyed this prison world immensely.
Much as I liked this book, I felt the supernatural elements, and I don’t want to give too much away, were not fully explored. We got pages, pages and pages about how to smuggle drugs into prison, around the wings, those involved, what they’re paid, etc. But when we got to the nitty gritty about how Jess was able to enter other prisoner’s dreams and scare them, it wasn’t explored thoroughly. And isn’t this idea lifted out of ‘A Nightmare in Elm Street’ anyway? I felt this side of the novel merited a meatier chunk of the 500 pages that it was given, much more. So it many ways it was a good prison thriller, but when you stripped it right down, it boiled down to a pretty simple ghost story, albeit wonderfully and intricately written.
TGWATG was one of those great novels which was about zombies, but the word “zombie” was never actually used. I know lots of non-horror fans who enjoyed that exceptionally smart book, and there are no surprises that it is currently being turned into a film, but I doubt “Fellside” will find the same sort of audience. This is a somewhat difficult book to categorise and because of that, I doubt it will do as well as it deserves to.