In The Prisoner of Hell Gate, Dana Wolff (a pseudonym) has written an intriguing variation on a familiar horror story trope. A small group of people find themselves stuck in an isolated environment where they are threatened by some evil force, sometimes natural, often supernatural. Soon they are dying off one by one, until one or two figure out how to deal with the evil, or worst case scenario, they don’t, and then there are none.
The group in The Prisoner of Hell Gate is a quartet of graduate students in public health led by a junior professor who call themselves the Sewer Rats. There is Karalee Soper, a reluctant student more interested in photography than public health, and the ostensible heroine of the story. She is having an affair with Chick the young professor. Joining them are Josh, a needy nerd, Gerard, a gay Korean and Estella, a brash Latina with a withered arm. They are out on their leader’s boat for an end of term holiday on the East River.
As they approach the Hell Gate area, they are attracted to the now uninhabited, much storied North Brother Island. Famous both for its involvement with the General Slocum shipwreck back in 1901 and later as the site of the communicable disease hospital where the notorious Typhoid Mary was held in isolation for years, they decide, much in the tradition of looking in the basement of a haunted house, a surreptitious visit might be a good idea. It doesn’t take long for them to discover that the island may not be as uninhabited as they had supposed.
There is a woman living in isolation in the ruins on the island. Coincidently her name is Mary, and although she is a rough character, she is a wonderful cook. And when they discover that their boat has been incapacitated in their landing and they are temporarily stuck on the island, Mary offers them dinner. She even manages, using some Haagen-Daz they have brought in a cooler, to whip up some peach melba for dessert.
Public health scholars all, the group is well aware of Typhoid Mary’s story and her lack of co-operation with authorities and her eventual quarantine. While they know full well that the Mary feeding them rabbit stew can have nothing to do with her, strange things are going on. Still after smoking a joint or two and downing a couple of Quaaludes here and there, who knows what is possible.
Wolff weaves together an alternative history of Typhoid Mary and the tale of the Sewer Rats to create a chilling read with a surprise or two for the heat of summer.