Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Book Review: HELL GATE by Elizabeth Massie

Hell Gate

Title: Hell Gate
Author: Elizabeth Massie
Publisher: Dark Fuse
Read: August 31 - September 02, 2013

My thoughts:

Suzanne Heath is a troubled young woman with a dark and disturbing past. Having been badly beaten and left for dead there was a time when she could not even remember her own name, and only survived thanks to the kindness of the students and staff of the Hudson Colored Waifs’ Asylum, where she became known as Rachel for lack of another name. After more than two years of taking refuge and working at the asylum, Suzanne begins to have strange visions and realises that she has an unusual gift – to see into the hearts of strangers and know their most intimate secrets. It is not long after that she suddenly remembers her own name, and events in her past so terrible that they compel her to flee to New York City, where she can disappear in its mass of people and make a fresh start.

Soon Suzanne is working as a cashier at Luna Park on Coney Island. But even in a city of thousands she cannot escape her dark past, and visions plague her every night in her dreams and through every physical contact with strangers. Having heard of Suzanne’s unusual psychic gift, she is asked to help in the police investigation into the gruesome slaying of a woman at Coney Island’s Capitol Hotel. At first, Suzanne has little to offer, but as more victims are found with the same horrific injuries, her visions slowly close in on a suspect – a force so terrifying that Suzanne must use all her powers just to stay alive.

Dark, mysterious and so very compelling, Hell Gate gripped me from the very first page and had me sitting up all night reading as shivers ran down my spine from the more gruesome scenes in the novel. I don’t normally read horror and would probably not have picked up this book had it not been for its historical setting: a New York amusement park at the turn of the last century – brilliant! I have vague memories of early childhood visits to historical side-show alleys in Vienna, and always thought it would make the perfect setting for a truly spooky murder mystery. And Massie really delivers in terms of historical detail and atmospheric descriptions of Coney Island’s Luna Park – from its superficial frivolity right down to its sleazy underbelly. Introduce some paranormal themes, and a power so evil it poses a threat to every human it encounters, and the stage is set. Be prepared to be chilled to the bone imagining the horrific scenes of carnage left behind by the evil that is afoot, an evil that may be linked to Suzanne’s own dark past.

All the details are there to bring the story to life, and reading Hell Gate feels like virtual time travel into a sinister past. It reminds me of the time I watched an entire season of “Carnivale” over one rainy weekend, which left me dazed and plagued by a vague feeling of dread and doom. Caught up in Hell Gate’s atmospheric descriptions I had a similar sensation, almost feeling like I had physically been there myself, looked over Suzanne’s shoulder, walked in her footsteps, felt her pain and fear. There are other interesting historical themes which Massie touches on in her novel: racism, gender roles, domestic violence and the details of turn-of-last-century murder investigations.

Alas, at 95% through the book I looked at its few remaining pages and became worried – there was no solution in sight as yet. How could this intriguing story possibly be resolved in a meagre 5% of its pages? Sadly, it couldn’t – for me, the ending felt rushed and very unsatisfactory, which was a huge let-down after hours of captivating reading. What had shaped up to be a very clever and unusual plot, turned so convoluted that it stretched the borders of credibility way too far for my liking, leaving behind many unanswered questions. It felt like sitting an exam and realising, two minutes from the end, that you have spent so much time elaborating on one question, that there is no time to answer all the remaining ones.

So, how do you rate a book which kept you totally spellbound for 95% of its pages, but which ending provoked a mutinous howl of protest and disappointment? Perhaps other readers, who are more adept at suspending disbelief than I am, may find the ending clever and unexpected. Unexpected – yes, it certainly was, in more ways than one. So all I can say is this: if you like historical fiction, it is definitely worth picking up Massie’s novel (even if horror is not usually your thing). Even its most gruesome scenes are no worse than popular authors like Nesbo or Cornwell, and should be acceptable to most lovers of murder-mysteries (apart from the really faint-hearted). Give it a go!

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Please note that the final published copy may vary from the one I reviewed.

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