As with any Darkfuse release, I started “Hell gate” by Elizabeth Massie with high expectations. I had read some of Massie’s short stories before, most notably in her massive collection “The fear report,” and I had enjoyed them so I was eager to see what one of her novels would be like.
Suzanne Heath was not always a special little girl. Her early years were rather ordinary for a child in the late 19th century. Then one day, her friend’s pet rabbit disappeared at a party and the search for it was futile. Suddenly, Suzanne knew just where the rabbit was and showed the adults where the frightened animal was stuck with its paw wrapped in wire. Since the early accusations that Suzanne had done this to the rabbit were easily disproved, it became apparent that Suzanne had a vision. When more visions followed, Suzanne’s mother sent her away to a special school as she was convinced that the visions were the work of the devil. While at the school, Suzanne fell in with a group of girls with special talents that called themselves the Morgans and the group become close, if not very friendly, associates.
Years later, Suzanne is found along the side of the road by a wagon full of young black boys. She is brought back to their school and taken in. She has no memory of her life before being found and begins a new life as Rachel. When the visions start to return, however, Suzanne learns her true identity and decides that she must leave the school. She flees with a young man and close friend, Cittie, and they start new lives on Coney Island. Suzanne’s psychic talents are discovered by a co-worker who happens to be the daughter of a detective and Suzanne is asked to help solve the death of a city alderman. This sets off a chain of events that leads Suzanne on a deadly quest through both the past and the present in which she must act quickly to save her life and sanity by stopping the murderer before the world comes crashing down around her.
“Hell gate” is a very strong historical fiction and a difficult story to tell but one that Massie is more than capable of writing. Massie brings the world of the early 20th century to life and packs a lot of the time period into the story. Some of these details are fairly simple, such as the painstaking detail of Coney Island and the somewhat ramshackle attractions, while others are integral to the story and gut-wrenching to read such as the relationship between Suzanne and Cittie that is forbidden as the two are divided forever by race. The setting of the novel, both time and place, are an integral part of the story rather than an interesting façade behind the story as it is in most historical novels. This adds an element of real world horror into this novel of the supernatural and allows the reader to not only become engaged with the story but immersed into it. The reader does not fell as if he is reading about the events of the novel but as if he is standing right there alongside the characters and watching the events unfold in real time.
Elizabeth Massie is a master of atmospheric horror, at least in my experience with her works, and “Hell gate” is another great example of this. In “Hell gate,” Massie does not write a novel but rather creates a world of intrigue and horror that traps the reader inside and forces the reader to experience the story until its shocking and terrifying end. The detail in this horror novel as historical timepiece is something that is not often seen in novels today and even rarer in the horror genre. While I feel that this novel may be a little too slow for some readers, those that enjoy a long and intricate tale are sure to be pleased. The style of this novel is a statement in and of itself and Massie crafts an interesting and disturbing tale into the rich setting of Coney Island as the 20th century was in the full flush of the century’s new bloom.
I would like to give a special thank you to NetGalley and Darkfuse for this advanced reading copy. “Hell gate” was released by Darkfuse on September 1, 2013, and is available now.