Hell Gate – a narrow tidal strait in the East River in New York is well-named because of its powerful and dangerous currents. In 1904 the steamship General Slocum caught fire in the strait and sank, taking down well over 1,000 souls. The worst single-event loss of life in this country until 9/11.
Hell Gate’s churning waters, however, don’t stop a group of five graduate students from Poughkeepsie spaced out on drugs from boating through the strait in Dana Wolff’s compelling horror fiction, “The Prisoner of Hell Gate.” On a whim, one of the students, Karalee Soper, insists the group detour to check out nearby North Brother Island. Abandoned in 1963 and since restricted, the 20-acre island from 1885 until the late ‘30s housed a complex of Victorian buildings that served as the city’s hospital and morgue for patients with infectious diseases. North Brother Island has been called “the last unknown place in New York City.” Who knew! Dana Wolff did.
In command of the elements of fiction and a prose style that captures the hip conversation of privileged youngsters and the creepy, harrowing gloom of the island, Wolff creates a suspenseful narrative by way of alternating chapters given over to two women. One is Karalee, a fictional character. The other is the real-life notorious patient who was isolated on North Brother decades earlier – Mary Mallon, better known as Typhoid Mary.
Her imprisonment was due to the discovery by Karalee’s great-grandfather, the real-life George Soper, a sanitation engineer, who figured out that the typhoid carrier was a young, dirt-poor immigrant from Ireland, who worked as a cook for many of the city’s prominent families. Herself asymptomatic, Mary managed to infect close to 50 people. Incarcerated against her will and without legal representation, she was released briefly on the promise that she never cook again, but impoverished and never given a chance to learn a skill other than cooking, she continued to ply her trade, desperate, defiant. She was finally locked up for good on North Brother where she remained a prisoner for 26 years until her death in 1938, forever vowing retribution and justice. She saw parallels for herself and the poor victims of the steamship disaster left to die. And in a clever move, Wolff extends the victim parallel to include Karalee, who has an abusive father.
“The Prisoner of Hell Gate” artfully combines New York City history with a nightmare tale that intertwines the natural and the supernatural. North Brother is where the poor and infected were sent, sealed off from the rest of us, a place now of entangled brush, rusted fencing, warped docks, dilapidated wards and crematorium. On his website Wolff says he likes to “write about dead people. Why they turn up. Why they come to untimely ends. How their passing casts a shadow over those of us who – for the moment – remain alive.” As for the shocking, unexpected ending, let’s just say, Hell Gate wins.