A different beast than M.R. Carey’s previous novel — the wonderful 2014 zombie-drama, the Girl with All the Gifts — Fellside takes a far more introspective and personal direction. Advertised as a ghost story, the horror of Fellside increasingly bleeds into the background, leaving room for a story of crushing guilt, identity, empathy — and an exposé on privatized prisons.
Jess Moulson’s life climaxes in a loss of control; as heroin addiction and an abusive, enabling partner extend themselves too far, she loses herself in an act of violence while overdosing. She sets fire to all the memories she has of her partner in hopes of removing the negative influences on her life, but the fire immediately spreads to the house as she passes out amidst the flames. Her partner escapes without much harm, but she’s severely disfigured from the accident, and a young boy who lived upstairs is dead of smoke inhalation.
Reeling from guilt (she cared for the boy far more than his own parents did), she ultimately gives herself to the justice system, all but confessing to a murder she may not have committed. That a boy had died was all that she and the jury could comprehend, and, responsible or not (for there is sufficient evidence casting doubt on her guilt), she felt she deserved whatever punishment was coming to her. Living the life she allowed herself to live was proof enough. She’s sent to Fellside, a privatized, all-women prison in northern Yorkshire run by incompetent, self-serving men.
Her only wish in Fellside is to die, and she brings herself to the bring and back via hunger strike. On the verge of death after weeks without food, she meets the ghost of a young boy named Alex — the very boy she was accused of killing. He’s lost between life and death, drifting through the dreams of the prisoners at Fellside, and he needs a companion and guide in death. Thus, the two depend on one another for companionship, for working through the guilt they’ve each carried throughout their lives. Alex, we find out, barely remembers his life — as memories and the dream-world he inhabits are very malleable — but one thing he does remember is that he knew his killer, and it wasn’t Jess Moulson.
“The facts are in the outside world. You can verify them with your senses or with objective tests. The truth is something that people build inside their heads, using the facts as raw materials. And sometimes the facts get bent or broken in the process.” [Loc. 201]
This new bond and dependence inspires her to bounce out of her hunger strike, eventually gaining her health back to join Fellside’s general population of criminals both vicious and caring. As Jess Moulson navigates life in prison and her own consciousness, getting drawn into a ring of drug-smuggling and murder, the mystery of the ghost’s killer and the relationships between prisoners and staff slowly unravel.
A staple of M.R. Carey’s — or Mike Carey’s — writing is his careful characterization. Fellside sports a large cast of prisoners and corporate politicians, and it’s Fellside‘s cast that propels this novel forward so exceptionally. Fellside‘s horror is a slow-burn, and most of the Carey’s novel is spent carefully spending time with the prisoners of Fellside, with trying to understand their identities and the broken lives that left them imprisoned in an equally-broken institution. What drives the characters’ sense of identity — whether it’s crafted from a domineering free will or the imaginations oppressing them — returns as a common theme from Carey’s other work. The self-serving men who run the prison are the only characters with deficiencies; characters like Devlin (or, ‘the Devil’) are almost written about with malice by the omniscient narrator, for their main features seem to be their selfishness, or their weakness towards the patriarchal system they depend on. For good or bad, the men of Fellside are easy to detest.
She saw the women of [Fellside] from the inside, and from the inside they were all of them bowed down by the weight of what had befallen them. They were all on a catastrophe curve, sailing frictionlessly towards this precipice or that. It was little wonder that they were capable of brutality. What was amazing was that they ever managed to be kind to one another. [Loc. 2937]
Fellside‘s a novel of perception: Of how our perceptions can change the shape of legality, of identity, of guilt, et al., of all the morally-ambiguity we surround ourselves with. It lacks the excitement of some of Mike Carey’s more acclaimed novels and comics, but Carey’s none-the-less left us with another beautifully-written character drama, a drama that’s careful with what it does and says, that speaks of nothing but empathy towards its own characters and all the unfortunate situations they experience.
Author Mike Carey (writing here as M.R. Carey) has been publishing novels and graphic novels for over 20 years. He’s primarily known as the lead writer for his comic book series Lucifer (2000 – 2006) and the Unwritten (2009 – 2015), as well as 2014’s the Girl with All the Gifts. Other worthwhile projects include his Felix Castor series of urban fantasy novels, and a slew of stories co-written with his family (Linda & Louise Carey), including Confessions of a Blabbermouth (2007), the Steel Seraglio (2012), and the House of War and Witness (2016).