J.E. Fishman tackles the legend of Typhoid Mary under pen name Dana I. Wolff with The Prisoner of Hell Gate, a title that evokes the mystery and terror of classical greats like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House or Richard Matheson’s Hell House. However, Wolff’s story reads more like standard slasher fare, about a group of health-studying graduate students who boat into the infamous Hell Gate district of the Bronx, landing on North Brother Island to find that Typhoid Mary never left that horrible place. It’s a solid idea, one where Wolff could capitalize on the filth and grime of the island’s disuse, making the reader uncomfortable with the thought of disease ravaging through the characters. While that’s partially in effect, The Prisoner of Hell Gate falls ill to a number of other ailments that leave the novel festering.
Wolff’s setup is the most problematic because he’s forced to give backstory to Typhoid Mary. Told in alternating perspectives between Mary Mallon herself and the other main character Karalee, Wolff switches between Mary’s telling of memories in an era of typhoid fever – which are admittedly interesting, and the best use of characterization – and exposition told by the cast of characters stumbling on the remains of the isolation buildings on North Brother. Whole swaths of The Prisoner of Hell Gate find the main characters delivering endless discussion about Typhoid Mary, seemingly inundated with facts and knowledge about the woman. They’re public health students, sure, but their dialogue doesn’t read as organic or even characteristic of their personalities; instead, it feels shoehorned in to give the reader information about Typhoid Mary, and it’s not a very engaging read.
It doesn’t help that most of the characters in The Prisoner of Hell Gate are thoroughly unlikable; Wolff seems bent on doing this intentionally. Chick is misogynistic, racist, and out-and-out mean-spirited; the others are simply whiny and uninteresting, and Wolff doesn’t explore them dynamically anyway. Karalee gets the most development because of her close proximity to the reader, but even she quickly becomes annoying; her attempts to document the island with her camera in inopportune moments, or her continual denial that Typhoid Mary exists despite the evidence, are difficult to accept. The characters, then, become people that the reader roots against, and while that can also be attributed to “Slasher 101,” it’s hard for the reader to remain invested in the plot when it’s clear none of the characters are making appropriate decisions.
Wolff’s characterization isn’t all bad, though; he does a lot of work with Karalee’s backstory, exploring her family’s history with Typhoid Mary and her ancestor’s pursuit of Mary until she was finally exiled from humanity. Wolff draws attention to scars and Karalee’s recurring nightmare of her father placing her in a cage as a child after she soiled her diaper, and there are certainly some parallels between Karalee and Mary that eventually become an important part of the conclusion.
But Wolff’s compassion for Typhoid Mary is perplexing – The Prisoner of Hell Gate wants the reader to feel bad for her, to grieve for her imprisonment on North Brother Island. It’s a strange direction to take the novel, especially because, throughout most of the book, Typhoid Mary does horrible things – both to the main characters and in her past. It’s difficult to see things from Mary’s perspective; she caused a lot of death due to carelessness, totally ignoring recommendations to stop cooking for families. At first, it wasn’t even a full quarantine, just a warning that she was a typhoid carrier. So The Prisoner of Hell Gate isn’t too convincing when it sides with Mary.
The Prisoner of Hell Gate has an intriguing premise, but Wolff isn’t able to take the boat in those directions. Instead, lengthy expository passages and poor character growth distract from the truly interesting story of Typhoid Mary. Too much affects this novel to to keep readers invested; hopefully, this novel’s issues don’t plague Wolff’s next work.