Everyone knew about Stewartville’s dark history. The mining war that led to the prisons. The prisons that brought the corruption. The drugs and the crime. It was no secret that something was wrong with the place. What we didn’t know was why. Then Denny and I found that tunnel in his basement. And what we learned—what everyone learned—is that there’s no escaping the ghosts of your past. But let me start at the beginning…
Shannon Felton’s debut novella, The Prisoners of Stewartville, is a monster. The story is pretty simple, the narrator and his friend, Denny, are playing video games in Denny’s basement, they throw something at the wall, it knocks out a brick, and the behind the brick is a tunnel that goes under the town. This might have unleashed a supernatural force that suddenly makes people in the town start to kill one another in violent and brutal ways. What makes this novella so great, so much more than this plot, is the writing. Felton’s writes these scenes, these these characters, this town, and the bleak futures so well that you feel like you are part of the story.
From the very first sentence of the story, we know what type of town and characters this story is going to contain:
People move to Stewartville for three reasons and three reasons only: they worked for the prisons, they had family in the prisons, or they were in prison. (p. 1).
From there we meet the narrator, who lives with his brother, Shane, and his Nana who spends all day in her room, lying in bed and watching VHS tapes of recorded soap operas. Their mother is in prison so Shane takes care of all of them, giving them a little bit to eat and making sure Nana takes her pills at night. Other than that the main character and his brother can do whatever they want. The story unfolds with them interacting with many of their friends and peers that might be creating bigger problems for them. In the end, it is the thing in the tunnels, the evil that is seeping out into the streets, that causes everyone to lose their mind.
Shannon Felton does not write as much as paint the scenes. Every single piece of this story has details that make us feel the sadness and desperation in every character in this town. There are so many small moments of writing that most readers do not even recognize that have such a huge impact on bringing the story to life. Like when the narrator goes into his room but cannot open the door all of the way because his mattress blocks it. Little details like that tell us that he lives in a cramped space, that there are no other options but to adapt to a life that is not ideal, and that the whole story will be like this, where the doors will open but not wide enough.
Stewartville is a great setting, and a great town, but this is mostly due to Felton’s writing. She brings everything to life by making it clear in our heads what type of people inhabit this town and how the history of the town is dragging everyone down. The title The Prisoners of Stewartville is not only about the inhabitants of the prison but of everyone in that town. There is not a single person in this novella that is not trapped by Stewartville, it’s poverty, drugs, and crime. You either grow up and work at the prison or live at the prison, and those do seem like the only options. This outlook is bleak but it is also seeped into every single sentence of this novella.
I expected a decent novella, one that I would be happy to talk about and forget, but The Prisoners of Stewartville is so much more than that. It demands my attention with a great story and some of the best horror writing I have read in a long time. I could dissect each scene in this novella and explain how great the writing is, and I might do some of this on my own. This is an experience that everyone should have on their own. I cannot wait to see what else Shannon Felton will write.