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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

NEW NOVEL! M.R. Carey: "Fellside"

Author:  M. R. Carey (aka Mike Carey)
Title:  Fellside
Plot Type:  Supernatural Horror/Mystery
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality3; Humor—1   
Publisher and Titles:  Orbit (4/2016) 


Fellside is a maximum-security prison on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors. It's not the kind of place you'd want to end up. But it's where Jess Moulson could be spending the rest of her life. It's a place where even the walls whisper. And one voice belongs to a little boy with a message for Jess.

    Jess Moulson awakens in a hospital room with no memories of her recent past only to learn that she is under arrest for (and soon convicted of) setting a fire in her apartment that killed a young boy named Alex Beech and injured her boyfriend, John. Jess is a long-time substance abuser, and she was high on heroin at the time of the fire. With no memory of the fire, Jess comes to believe the accusations against her and is wracked with guilt over being the cause of Alex's death. Days before entering Fellside, Jess begins a hunger strike, sentencing herself to death through starvation. But then Alex's ghost saves Jess's life after a malevolent prison nurse nearly kills her. Alex tells Jess that she is not the person who killed him and that he will not allow her to die until she helps him find his real murderer. While Jess tries to sort out her memories of the fire and her feelings about Alex, she ends her hunger strike and is placed in the general population (aka gen pop) of the prison.

     Alex begins to make frequent visits to Jess's cell, mostly at night. "He approached Jess through dimensions that she could dimly see because they clung to him for a while after he arrived: the spoor of the night world…The moment that he came would always fill Jess with an unreasoning fear, a sense that the lid had momentarily opened on a box that was better kept shut." At this point, the plot splits into two related story lines: a gritty, realistic horror story of sociopathic prisoners and corrupt guards and a supernatural tale in which Jess periodically enters the Other World, a mystical realm in which "she felt her tiny cell dissolve away, leaving her lying out in the open in a place that was vast and endless. An unseen multitude moved in front of her closed eyelids, shadows so faint you could barely see them, but so many that they coalesced into an endless darkness. At the limits of her vision, everything broke up into turbulence and chaos. And still there were the voices…They were fragments of wishes, regrets, laments." In between visits to the Other World, Alex tells Jess his life/death story and protects her from the dangers of prison life. 

     Meanwhile, in the real world, Jess soon finds herself dragged into the lucrative drug ring run by the sociopathic Harriet Grace with the assistance of a treacherous prison guard, Dennis Devlin (aka the Devil), and Grace's two tough and bloodthirsty lieutenants. The prison doctor and one of the nurses are also involved with Grace's nefarious operation. Carey does a fine job of creating the nuanced characters who populate the prison: the guards, the medical staff, and the prisoners themselves. Carey's character development is masterly—particularly the layered portraits of the prisoners and guards. Sal, the male doctor in the prison infirmary, is the most complex of the supporting characters as well as being the most “normal.” His development from a terrified bystander to a still-scared, but defiant, participant is fascinating to watch. Also strong are the early scenes of Jess's hunger strike.

     As Grace explores Alex's Other World, she discovers how her nighttime walks with him involve the memories of the other prisoners. "Fellside at night, through the eyes of the dead, was like the first day of creation. The waters had been divided but darkness still lay on then...But this wasn't water she was walking through. It was lives…She was circumnavigating the dreams of the women of Goodall wing. She saw what they saw on the inside of their closed eyelids, except that each of them only saw their own dreams, while Jess saw them all, was drenched and deluged by them." Eventually, Jess begins to realize that Alex is not who she thought he was, and she is forced to rethink her all of her memories—from her childhood all the way up to the events of her recent past.

     Carey has created a realistic and horrifying prison world that is the setting for an engrossing story of violence, greed, and amorality. The twisting, turning pathway to the truth about the fire is gritty and compelling. Weaving a fantastical ghost story through the prison plot adds mystery and suspense to the story. The problem, though, lies in the huge leaps the reader must constantly make between the sadistic reality of the prison and the mystical spookiness of the Other World in which Jess and Alex walk through other people's dreams. Moving back and forth between grim realism and ghostly astral projection requires a supreme suspension of disbelief.  

     For me, the weakest part of the novel comes towards the end, when things get very woo-woo as the author resolves the story line involving Grace's bodyguard, Liz Earnshaw, and takes Jess to her ultimate fate. (Disappointingly, Liz's motives for her long-ago crime are never made entirely clear.)

     If you are a ghost story fan who has no problem navigating quick leaps between scenes of brutal reality and dark fantasy, you'll probably enjoy this novel tremendously.

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt that can be accessed on the novel's page by clicking either on the cover art or the "Audible Narration" icon. Click HERE to read my review of Carey's earlier novel, The Girl with All the Gifts.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Fellside is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through NetGalley. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.

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