Book: “The Prisoner of Hell Gate” by Dana I. Wolff
Publishing Info: Picador, July 2016
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: FOUR DECADES AFTER TYPHOID MARY WENT TO HER GRAVE, FIVE CURIOUS GRADUATE STUDENTS STRUGGLE TO ESCAPE ALIVE FROM THE ABANDONED ISLAND THAT ONCE IMPRISONED HER. CONTAGION DOESN’T DIE. IT JUST WAITS.
In the Hell Gate section of New York’s East River lie the sad islands where, for centuries, people locked away what they most feared: the contagious, the disfigured, the addicted, the criminally insane.
Here infection slowly consumed the stricken. Here a desperate captain ran his doomed steamship aground and watched flames devour 1500 souls. Here George A. Soper imprisoned the infamous Typhoid Mary after she spread sickness and death in Manhattan’s most privileged quarters.
George’s great-granddaughter, Karalee, and her fellow graduate students in public health know that story. But as they poke in and out of the macabre hospital rooms of abandoned North Brother Island—bantering, taking pictures, recalling history—they are missing something: Hidden evil watches over them—and plots against them.
Death doesn’t only visit Hell Gate. It comes to stay.
As darkness falls, the students find themselves marooned—their casual trespass having unleashed a chain of horrific events beyond anyone’s imagination.
Disease lurks among the eerie ruins where Typhoid Mary once lived and breathed. Ravenous flies swarm puddles of blood. Rot and decay cling to human skin. And spiteful ghosts haunt the living and undead.
Soon five students of history will learn more than they ever wanted to know about New York’s foul underbelly: the meaning of spine-tingling cries down the corridor, of mysterious fires, of disfiguring murder, and of an avenging presence so sinister they’d rather risk their lives than face the terror of one more night.
Review: Here is a brief history lesson for those who may not be as privy to the genuinely tragic story of Typhoid Mary. Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant who came to America in 1883, and eventually took a position as a cook for upper class families. For immigrant women during this time period, choices were limited, as servitude or prostitution were two very common end games for them. Mary was lucky enough to find work as a cook, but unfortunately she was an asymptomatic carrier of Typhoid Fever. She was quarantined twice in her life, and when she was released the first time she was explicitly told that she couldn’t be a cook anymore. So she worked as a laundress for awhile, but unsatisfied with the pay she changed her name and started cooking again…. and more typhoid infections broke out. Eventually she was found, and spent the rest of her life in quarantine (source). “Prisoner of Hell Gate” kind of takes liberties with the history of Typhoid Mary, and twists it a bit to suit the story and the message that Wolff wants to convey. While I don’t necessarily disagree with the message (mistreatment of lower class women during the turn of the 20th century was wrong, oppressive, and had high consequences), I do think that “Prisoner at Hell Gate” was a bit too focused on this message and sacrificed scares for a soap box.
Also, to really talk about the issues I had with this book, I’m going to have to delve into spoilers. So if you want to read this book, you may want to avoid this review.
The core group of protagonists (known as the Sewer Rats for their Public Health focus in grad school) are mostly flat caricatures. The main character, Karalee, is the great grand-daughter of George Soper, the man who hunted Typhoid Mary down and ultimately confined her in isolation for the rest of her life. Karalee has mixed feelings about her legacy and feels a need to defend Typhoid Mary, not really necessarily because of Mary herself, but because of the toxic pride that her father took in the Soper legacy that negatively affected her and because of the cruddy situation women had during that time period in general. She is the most complex character in this group, and is leaps and bounds more fleshed out than her companions. Chick is her boyfriend and he’s the epitome of misogynistic jerk that we are supposed to want dead. He’s a creep, he’s racist, he’s potentially anti-Semitic, and he’s sleeping with Karalee who is his student, but he was so moustache twirly in his evilness that it just felt lazy. Root for him to die because HE’S TERRIBLE was how it felt. I’m never into easy outs like that. There’s Josh, who embodied the neurotic Jew stereotype to the point that I was feeling uncomfortable. There’s Gerard, who is pretty boring and forgettable. And then there’s Elena, who I thought could have had some serious potential, but who didn’t get to be much more than the sassy Latina. I liked that we did have some diversity in this group (Josh, Gerard, and Elena), but it was very unfortunate that none of them were terribly complex.
And then there’s Mary. In this story, Typhoid Mary isn’t necessarily a carrier of Typhoid, but some kind of superhuman being that has evolved beyond being sick and even aging itself. We aren’t really told why, it’s just given as the reality to fit the narrative so that Mary can still be alive and antagonistic forty years after her supposed death. When our group of Sewer Rats stupidly maroon themselves on the supposedly abandoned island where she was left to rot, Mary decides that they all deserve to die, especially Karalee, the descendent of the man who sent her there. And this is where I just can’t totally buy in to this story. I myself do have sympathy for Mary Maron, because yeah, wow, what a shitty hand to be dealt. You are a carrier of a deadly disease without known treatment, and because of this your life has been changed and you cannot exercise the same, LIMITED rights that lower class women have in society. But, that said, I am just not totally willing to say because of this, these dumbasses who crash land on her island deserve to contract typhoid and die. If I’m feeling SUPER generous, maybe I’ll give you Chick. Maybe. But Elena, Josh, Gerard, and Karalee? Nope. Not at all. If it was an attempt to empower Mary, it didn’t work for me. If there had been some actual retribution towards George Soper as he was written in this book, I could have probably been on board! But analogs for him through his descendent and a chauvinist, plus three to round out the body count, just didn’t have the same empowering effect.
In terms of scary moments, this book did have a few of them. At first I was really intrigued by the atmosphere of the Sewer Rats tromping through an abandoned island with remnants of humanity. Abandoned buildings, shadows in the dark, scary noises in the night, all of these things made for some tense moments that genuinely set me on edge during parts of this story. It felt very “Blair Witch” meets “Abandoned By Disney” , which is the kind of story that freaks me out. What we don’t see is far scarier than what we do, in my opinion. But once they met up with Mary the story started to suffer. Hell, once it was made clear that Mary had her own perspective chapters, I was immediately put off. Had we not had the Mary perspective at all, and had the Sewer Rats been stalked by an unknown person or thing in the woods around them, I think it would have been far more interesting as a horror novel. As it was, the seeming need to justify the aggression that Mary felt and exercised towards the Sewer Rats really hindered what could have been a creepy and genuinely scary narrative.
It’s too bad that “Prisoner of Hell Gate” wasn’t what I wanted it to be. It had promise, but fell flat.
Rating 5: Unlikable characters, an unsympathetic antagonist who is meant to be sympathetic, and a frustrating focus made this a frustrating book to read. There are decent scares and moments in it, but overall didn’t live up to what I’d hoped it would be.
“The Prisoner of Hell Gate” is not on any Goodreads lists yet, but if you’re interested in books on illness look at “Public Health”. And while I wouldn’t consider this book a ‘best of’, the list “Best Wilderness Horror Stories” could be something you want to look at.
Find “The Prisoner at Hell Gate” at your library using WorldCat!