Typhoid Mary is alive and well off the coast of New York.
Wolff presents a classic horror scenario—sybaritic youths running afoul of a murderous maniac in the woods—with a decidedly millennial twist: the true monster here is not the madwoman brandishing plague and a wickedly sharp barbecue fork but the very notion of social privilege. The madwoman in question is one “Typhoid” Mary Mallon, the infamous spreader of disease exiled to the rude shores of North Brother Island off the coast of Manhattan by the pioneering public health reformer George Soper. Strangely ageless at 113 years old and in typically robust health (the actual Mallon was only a carrier who never suffered the symptoms of her disease), Mary, alone on the island for decades, seethes with rage at her treatment by Soper and a society in which a poor Irish girl’s hopes and desires counted for exactly nothing. Of course, Mallon’s irresponsibility killed many innocents, but Wolff’s sympathies are squarely with Mallon…as are those of her protagonist, Karalee Soper, great-granddaughter of George, who, in an amazing coincidence, winds up stranded on Mary’s island with a cohort of her grad student pals, who are, in another amazing coincidence, studying public health. Wolff depicts the hapless scholars (who wash up on the island as a result of a drug-fueled boating excursion) as smug, grotesquely privileged boors deserving of Mary’s gruesome attentions; Karalee is the exception, as she finds herself empathizing with Mary’s plight (and that of the island’s other ghosts, women and children burned to death as a result of unpunished negligence) and progressively estranged from her doomed colleagues. Wolff’s way with characterization and situation recalls Stephen King’s grounded, relatable style (with Mary Mallon rendered particularly vividly), and she employs genre tropes deftly, but the narrative’s oddly imbalanced respect for the murderous Mallon and contempt for the grad students—who, for all of their inane self-involvement, are preparing for careers in public service—mute much of the horror, as the victims are irritating straw men and not missed when dispatched, and Karalee’s own issues (mainly a lousy dad), which align her with Mallon, seem underdeveloped and render her disloyal actions and sour perspective confusing and off-putting.
Wolff has an intriguing premise and something fresh to say with the horror genre, but ideological concerns trump the scares, and the author fails to craft a hero as compelling as her thwarted, vengeful villain.