People often say that a book is only as good as it’s villain. I’m not sure I totally agree with this statement, but there’s no denying that a really great villain can make for a truly brilliant read. The more powerful the bad guy is, the harder the good guys have to fight to survive and the more we root for them. As I mentioned in my interview here earlier, everybody loves an underdog, especially when they’re up against something immensely powerful and utterly, relentlessly evil. I think that maybe this is why prison narratives are so popular, and why they draw such an emotional response from readers: because villains really don’t get any worse than a prison.
I always set out to make Furnace Penitentiary a character rather than a place. It had to be more than just a location if it was really going to scare people — it had to be the villain of the story. And it is. Although there are countless living horrors inside Furnace — the hellish Wheezers, the sadistic guards known as Blacksuits, the skinless dogs, the monsters dragged from the blood-drenched tunnels below, and of course, the Warden himself, a man as cruel and as dangerous as the devil — at least they are alive. Anything that is alive can be reasoned with or fought. Anything that is alive can be killed.
But Furnace Penitentiary is not alive. It has no soul, no warmth, no mercy. It cannot be reasoned with or tricked, it cannot be knocked out or injured. It cannot die. This thing — because it does feel more like a ‘who’ to me than a ‘where’ — is a monster which devours children, which pulls them into its stone belly a mile beneath the surface of the planet and which never lets them go. You could scratch away at the walls for a thousand years and still never get anywhere. I find this idea of an immortal, unthinking, unfeeling entity absolutely terrifying.
At the heart of every great prison story is the prison itself. It defines the action because it is the very force that needs to be defeated, the very evil that needs to be overcome. Prisons are built for a single purpose: to keep people locked up. And they are very, very good at what they do. This is what makes them such excellent villains — they perform their function with the same ruthless efficiency and emotional detachment as the Terminator. They are mechanical places of misery, of suffering, of pain, of violence, places where hope is crushed beyond any chance of recovery. They are evil — a necessary evil, in many cases, but evil nonetheless.
Prison narratives also simultaneously appeal to us and repel us because of the fact that there is no escape. I don’t just mean there’s no way out of the prison itself, but there’s nowhere to hide from the horrors of the incarceration. In most books, characters can run, they can get away. Behind bars, there is no such luxury. There is no privacy, no safe house, no hiding places, no friends or family that can protect you, no door you can lock behind you, no curtains you can pull. The nightmares have unrestricted access to you, they can come whenever they like, they can do whatever they like, and there is not way to stop them. It’s a horrific notion, and yet the idea of a character who is utterly powerless, who is totally at the mercy of his enemies, makes for compulsive storytelling.
Writers of prison narratives, myself included, are almost cheating. Because by setting up a penitentiary you are creating the perfect villain! And by making the good guy innocent of whatever crime he or she is accused of, you automatically get the reader on side. Wrongful accusation and imprisonment is something that everybody frears, and because of this you cannot help but empathize with a character who has suffered that fate. You desperately want them to escape — even if it’s a character you might not necessarily like or feel related to — and that emotional connection drives the story forwards, it keeps you hooked right to the last word. Prisoners are the ultimate underdogs because they’re fighting against this overwhelming enemy, not just the prison but everything it stands for.
Prison narratives are brutal. There are things that happen in prisons which are heartbreaking and soul-destroying — things which I couldn’t bring myself to write about. I should say that the Furnace series is violent, yes, and terrifying in places, but it’s a horror novel, not an ‘issues’ book. I didn’t want to explore the true horror of prisons, the real horror, because other people have already done it, and done it extremely well. I’m not sure I could have written about it even if I’d wanted to, because truth is always so much worse than fiction and some of the stories I’ve read of real people locked away are unbearably sad. They’re simply devastating. Horror, for me, is all about escapism — in more ways than one. That’s what I wanted the Furnace books to be. They’re scary, yes, but they’re about the adventure as much as the terror, the daring planning and execution of a prison break against all odds.
Freedom is possibly the most important thing in life. It lets us be ourselves, it lets us live the way we want to, it lets us be human. I guess, in a nutshell, that’s why prison narratives are so attractive — so addictive, almost. Because in taking freedom away, prisons become the embodiment of everything that stops us being ourselves. They lock us down when our lives need to flow, they bury us alive when we need to fly, they smother us when we need to breath. They are guilty of the greatest crime of all, which is why they are the perfect villains, and why any character pitted against one becomes the simplest and most effective kind of hero.