Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

Please Release Me: A Selection of Locked Up Fiction

This Saturday’s episode of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM was one of my occasional themed shows. I’m not sure what news story or event inspired this (haha), but this week’s show was all about fiction featuring characters who get locked up, locked in or trapped somehow. I didn’t want the show to be too grim (though a couple of the titles on my list are rather dark), so I featured a selection of ‘locked in’ scenarios and traps.

You can listen to the show again on the player at the end of the post. But, as promised on the show, here are the details of the books I talked about. Did I miss your favourite? Or do you massively disagree with any of my choices? Let me know in the comments!

The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe (1846)

I started off with a short story, rather than a novel, but one by a writer who specialized in ‘locked in’ fiction. A number of Poe’s stories feature characters getting (permanently) sealed into very unpleasant places. For this show, I decided to go with ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ (though are several others I could have chosen on this theme!).

‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is set in an unnamed Italian city at Carnival. The narrator – a man called Montresor – is telling a listener all about the revenge he has taken on a rival called Fortunato. It’s an old grudge, and Montresor lists numerous slights and one unspecified insult that was the final straw. He decided to take revenge during Carnival, while Fortunato is drunk, and the titular cask of rare Amontillado was the bait. The story is told from the murderer’s perspective (as in Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’) – but what I really like about this story is that Montresor never really explains his motive. Is he insane? Or jealous? Or did Fortunato really deserve his fate? The story leaves the explanation for Montresor’s crime tantalizing unexplained.

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King (1982)

Given the theme, I had to feature one book set in a prison. And there was really no contest for which one it was. Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (subtitled ‘Hope Springs Eternal’) is a novella that was originally included in King’s Different Seasons collection. It is told by a narrator, Red, who spent nearly forty years incarcerated in Shawshank State Penitentiary. Red’s story is about a prisoner named Andy Dufresne, who arrived in Shawshank in 1948 after being found guilty of the murders of his wife and her lover. Shawshank is a brutal and violent place, and Red describes the assaults Andy suffers, but also the strategies the other man uses to survive this. Red and Andy become friends, and Red (who has a reputation for being able to get things) supplies Andy with the little luxuries he requests, including a little rock hammer to make sculptures and a poster of Rita Hayworth.

King’s novella is probably better known now from the film adaptation, which is renamed The Shawshank Redemption and stars Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. I definitely think the book deserves its place on this list though – doubly so, in fact, as not only is it set in a prison, but it has a significant episode of solitary confinement. You could say that Andy is doubly locked in, which makes it difficult (at least for a time) to believe that hope really does spring eternal.

Room by Emma Donoghue (2010)

This next one is a bit grim – though it’s a really well-written book, and it has a little touch of hope springing eternal as well. The reason why I call it grim is that Donoghue’s book was inspired by the real-life case of Josef Fritzl, who imprisoned and repeatedly raped his own daughter in the basement of his house for over twenty years. I was cautious about reading Room, as I wasn’t sure this was the sort of case that should inspire a fictional story. However, Donoghue’s novel is sympathetic and carefully written in a way that shows respect and sensitivity to its source inspiration.

Room is told from the perspective of a young boy called Jack, who lives in a room. The room is the only thing he knows, and Ma is the only person he knows (except the man they call Old Nick, who visits at night to hurt Ma). Ma has created a life of sorts for herself and Jack, fixing a routine and trying to keep the boy healthy. She tells him that the rest of the world exists only on the television they watch sometimes. The truth – which Jack doesn’t (can’t) understand – is that Old Nick kidnapped Ma when she was nineteen, and has held her prisoner in an outbuilding behind his house ever since. Jack is the product of rape, and as much a prisoner as his mother. The book begins with a moving and unsettling description of the daily routine Jack and Ma follow, and the story remains focused on the boy and his mother throughout. It’s an intelligent and compelling read, which avoids lurid and gratuitous description by using a child narrator and keeping us fixed on his perspective throughout.

Room was adapted into a film starring Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in 2015.

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley (2018)

I felt like my list needed a locked room mystery, but since I’ve already done an entire show devoted to classic locked room mysteries, I needed to bring it a bit more up-to-date. Foley’s book is more ‘trapped’ than ‘locked in’, but I think it definitely fits on today’s list.

The Hunting Party is set at New Year. A group of friends from university (Oxford University, no less) meet to celebrate New Year – a tradition they began ten years earlier, and which they’ve kept up even though their lives have gone in different directions. This year, they’ve booked an exclusive hunting lodge in a remote part of Scotland, but wouldn’t you know it? the day they arrive a blizzard descends, cutting the group off from the rest of the world. With tensions simmering – as well as two members of staff on site that maybe can’t be trusted – it’s clear that this break is not going to end well. Foley’s story unfolds in a non-linear, multiple POV way, so that the reader is kept guessing, not only about the identity of the killer, but about the identity of the victim. It’s atmospheric, claustrophobic and truly seasonal (though the clues to the mystery itself are, perhaps, a little too easy to spot). It’s a great read for the winter months, especially the Christmas period.

The Magician’s Study: A Guided Tour of the Life, Times and Memorabilia of Robert ‘The Great’ Rouncival by Tobias Seamon (2000)

This next title is a new discovery for me. As I was thinking about the sort of stories and characters that might get ‘locked in’ somewhere, my thoughts turned to escapology and escape artists. I thought it would be a good idea to include a book about a magician on this list.

Seamon’s novel is a biography of a fictional Jazz-Age magician named Robert the Great. The biography is presented as a tour of Robert’s study – the narrator is our tour guide – with each object leading into a story about Robert’s life and exploits. We learn that Robert Rouncival was born in 1896 in Kingston, New York. He was injured as a boy, resulting in a limp (and a chip on his shoulder), and then joined the circus (the ‘Travelling Extravaganza’ of Barnabas Welt). From this seedy and rundown entry to the world of showmanship, Robert will go on to rub shoulders with Harry Houdini and become one of the foremost illusionists of his time. As well as Houdini, Seamon’s fictional magician bumps into other famous figures – including Dutch Schultz, Frida Kahlo, H.G. Wells – and there are lots of mentions and descriptions of real places. But it’s not just about the (admittedly good fun) cameos from famous historical fiction, Seamon creates an original character, constantly at the mercy of his own self-destructive excesses, and reliant on his close relationships (with his assistant, Sherpa the Silent, and heiress Margaret Tillinghast) to save him from himself.

The Fall by Bethany Griffin (2014)

The final book on today’s list is a YA Gothic thriller. Griffin’s novel opens with an pretty dramatic first chapter, in which the 18-year-old protagonist, Madeline, wakes up in a coffin and realizes that she’s been buried alive. She knows almost immediately that she is in a coffin underneath her family home, and – most strangely – she’s not entirely surprised to find herself there. Madeline’s life is cursed. Her house is cursed. And her family (which now simply consists of her twin brother) is cursed…

Does this sound a little bit familiar? Well, maybe it should, because we’ve come full circle and return to Edgar Allan Poe (the undoubted master of ‘locked in’ fiction)! The Fall is, in fact, a retelling of Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, but told from the perspective of Roderick Usher’s twin sister Madeline, who mostly appears just to creep out the narrator in Poe’s story. Like a couple of the books on today’s list, The Fall is told in a non-linear way, with lots of short chapters jumping between fragmentary memories of Madeline’s life prior to the moment she wakes up in the coffin. Griffin preserves much of the story from Poe’s tale (including the icky pseudo-incestuous relationship between the doomed twins), but with some slight alterations, expansions and developments. Griffin does slightly change the ending as well, to make it a little more open, so I guess we’re ending with a story that’s slightly less ‘locked in’ than its original source!

To find out more about all of these books, and about my reasons for choosing them, you can listen to the show again here:

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