Sunday, 1 September 2013

Review of Matthew Lett's He Who Walks the Corridors

Teddy Roosevelt is a middle-aged black man from Oklahoma, named after the 26th president of the United States. One day Teddy decides to help his friend Derek rob a convenience store. Bad idea! The Japanese owner has a shotgun ready for uninvited guests and shoots Derek. Startled, Derek has time to fire a wild shot, a shot which kills the only customer in the convenience store: Teddy's mom. 

Charged with armed robbery and manslaughter, Teddy goes to jail. Things go from bad to worse when, in a gesture worthy of Camus' Meursault, Teddy spits in the face of Father O'Brannigan, the prison's spiritual counselor. In retribution, he is thrown in Detention Block X. According to Teddy, "X block is the worst the worst of the worst; the place where the prison condemns you to stay when even the other inmates can't stand the sight of you. 'Special cases", you might say." 

Besides Teddy, there are five other 'special cases' in Detention Block X: Jo-Jo, a murderer, Trevor Harding a.k.a. Hard-On, a pastor child molester, Sammy, an arsonist, Rodney, a robber and murderer, and Frank, a grandma rapist and killer. But there's someone else in Block X, someone who walks the corridors at night and terrorizes the inmates. Sammy is its first victim. Sammy burned down an elementary school while classes were in session. Now he screams at the ghosts of his victims, telling them that he didn't mean it. Next stop for Sammy: the loony bin. Rodney is the next victim of the mysterious visitor. As opposed to Sammy, Rodney gets butchered and leaves his cell in a body bag. The remaining inmates are more and more horrified by the midnight visitor. Hard-On, the pastor with a taste for kids, claims that "it's the wrath of God. [..] A dark angel; both beautiful and terrible to behold, who wields a fiery sword forged by the sins of man. Its edge is bitter and sharp in righteousness; its thirst for vengeance and judgment an unshakable torment to the wicked." Hard-on says that repentance is the only way to salvation. When he feels it's time to face the Dark Angel's judgment, Teddy reconsiders his crime and his relationship with his mother and prays for her forgiveness. 

He Who Walks the Corridors is a very emotional, gripping story. Matthew's Lett's portrayal of prison life is reminiscent of Stephen King's Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. The story is written in the first person, and reads like a confession. After the absurd killing of his mother, Teddy tries to lose himself in the strict routine of the prison, and keep the dark thoughts of suicide at bay:

I’m not that bad off yet, but time has a way of standing still in prison. It’s like someone hitting the Pause button on a DVD player showing the movie of your life and then forgetting to press Play. There you are, living life; working on the weekdays and partying on the weekends, making love to your girl, playing with your kids, hanging out with your buddies at the house, paying the bills and hoping that someday things will get a little bit better.

Then, BAM! Like a lightning strike on a hot summer’s day, life stops. It all stops, and you’re left with nothing but your thoughts and good intentions to keep you company on nights that seem to draw out into an eternity of misery. I wouldn’t wish this on any man (except for maybe Hard-On), not even on the guards here at the penitentiary because I know they’re just making a living and feeding their families, and can only tell you that dealing with this amount of solitude must be like dealing with a retarded child that you call your son or your daughter; the frustration, loneliness, hurt, and fear of the unknown, where all a person can do is pray and hope that one day the sun will start shining on your face.
Extreme loneliness amplifies the horror of the Dark Angel's nocturnal visits. Like the other inmates in Block X, Teddy has nowhere to run and hide. He needs to face the Angel's ruthless judgment with no external help. The outside world doesn't care about him and to the prison guards and administration he's nothing more than a number. Teddy has no one to turn to, no spiritual counselor, no therapist, no family. The sight of the Dark Angel punishing Trevor Harding, a.k.a. Hard-On, the only one left in Block X besides him, drives Teddy to the brink of madness. 

Too afraid to move, but more afraid not to, I stood there with my arm through the bars holding the mirror, watching as the cloud began to swirl and take shape, stretching itself into a vague human form. Despite the chill and dampness of my cell, I was sweating; droplets of terror streaming down my cheeks and stinging my eyes. My mouth had gone drier than the Sahara, and I remember thinking that it was all a dream, that like the death of my mother, it was happening to someone else and not me, that things like this didn’t have a place in the rational world, especially where Teddy Roosevelt was involved. But it was happening now as a dark figure stood in front of Harding’s cell. The shape was unusually tall, near seven feet and thin as a cat’s whisker. What it was wearing I couldn’t tell in the shifting gloom, but it did have a hooded cloak blacker than pitch wrapped about its shoulders. The figure seemed to be studying Harding. A withered, pale hand stole out of that cloak, stroking at an invisible chin. It chuckled then, a heartless empty sound that chilled my heart.
The Angel is not moved by Trevor's pleas and the pastor's claim that he repents. His punishment must fit his crime.  

A fresh chill swept over the corridor, my skin tightening against its icy bite until I thought the flesh would rip off my bones, watching as the Angel released its ‘children’; small puffs of wraith-like smoke pouring from within the specter’s outstretched cloak and into Harding’s cell. Girls with long hair and pony-tails and bows tied in their braids came tumbling out, each of them ghostly in appearance, but still brilliant in the lost light of their youth. And the boys who followed after were no different, exuberant and full of spice and vinegar , pushing and shoving one another in their eagerness to pay Hard-On a visit. They were laughing and giggling and rough-housing like kids are apt to do, and with a sickening realization I knew in my heart that these children were some of the unlucky ones. Children that hadn’t survived Harding’s brutal sexual attacks behind closed doors, and that the authorities had never known about. These were the unknown children, the lost, children who had never been given the chance to look life straight in the face and say, “I’m young and I want to live, love, and enjoy life,” and the Angel was simply their vindicator.
The children kill Trevor and slurp his meat, leaving behind a pile of skin and bones. His body is "missing all of its internal organs: brains, heart, lung, liver, etc. Emptied, and then discarded like an old laundry bag."

While Lett does a good job of building the tension toward Teddy's facing the judgement of the Angel of Death, the use of the first-person narrative takes away some of the suspense. The reader knows that Teddy survives to tell the story. So the meeting with the Dark Angel neither kills him nor drives him crazy (since he's able to form a coherent narrative). One interesting way of getting around this problem would have been to have Teddy write a journal and have the climatic scene narrated from a different perspective. Maybe from the Dark Angel's perspective? 

Which brings me to another point. Lett portrays the Dark Angel as a supernatural, fantastical creature, shrouded in mystery. And the fact that we don't know much about him contributes to the suspense of the story. However, the reader is bound to be puzzled by a few things the Dark Angel says and does, which could have been clarified and developed further by the author. For instance, after killing Trevor, the Dark Angel answers Teddy's terrified question regarding his identity. 

“I come from beyond the sun, the moon and the stars,” he told me in a dry, pitiless voice. “A place where no man dwells and no one enters unless summoned by me. It is neither a happy place nor a place full of sorrow, but constructed by man all the same. Like your friend here…” 

The Angel reached inside his cloak and removed a shining orb, roughly the size of a bowling ball. Blue fire flickered inside it, bouncing off its smooth dome with sparks of electricity. It gave off a soft humming sound, like the drone of a beehive. “This is Trevor Harding,” the Angel informed me, holding up the sphere. “The rest of him—” He motioned toward Trevor’s cell. “— lies on the floor, useless, an empty carcass fit for the rats and dogs and vultures if they’ll have him.”
Now, the Angel's claim that he comes from a place constructed by man, a place that is neither happy nor full of sorrow, is quite strange, since according to Christian metaphysics, an Angel can come from either Heaven or Hell, either a place of happiness or a place full of sorrow. And neither of those places is created by man. The Angel also traps Hard-On's soul in a crystal ball, but it is not clear that he's taking it to Hell, as expected. My point is not that the author should have subscribed to a Christian ideology, but that the metaphysics he relies on is not sufficiently fleshed out. Compare, for instance, with the evil shop-owner in Stephen King's Needful Things or The Illustrated Man in Bradbury's Something Wicked This Ways Comes. In both these works, the fantastic elements come with a story which allows the reader to grasp their logic. But this again goes back to the author's choice to tell the story from the first-person perspective. And Teddy, he's more interested in saving his soul than in bothering the Dark Angel with metaphysical questions. 

Terrified by the next imminent encounter with the Angel of Death, Teddy goes through a period of deep introspection and soul-searching, trying to find his mother's forgiveness: "The forgiveness that a loved one will bestow upon a person and the willingness of the receiver to accept it." This inner quest for his mom's forgiveness forces Teddy to recollect and relive the most important moments in his relationship with his mother: her sadness and disappointment at his becoming a drug dealer, her joy at him getting his college diploma and starting a family and so on. Teddy realizes that his struggle with poverty and his inability to end the toxic relationship with his friend Derek led to his fall from grace. These parts of the story are very powerful and touching. Lett shows that only such deep reflection on our lives and the ways our actions affect our loved ones can lead to our salvation. Each individual's salvation is a matter to be settled between him and God, and God is all-knowing, so nothing can be hidden from him. 

All in all, Matthew Lett's He Who Walks the Corridors is a very powerful and entertaining story, a story that can both scare you and move you to tears. It is an authentic record of a man's terrifying journey from the darkness of fear and alienation to the inner light of received forgiveness.  

Matthew Lett's novella is available through Wolf on Water Publishing. 


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