Hi there, thanks so much for letting me write a guest post for your blog! I wanted to talk a little bit about Furnace Penitentiary. It’s the Furnace of the series title, but it’s more than just a place – it’s also one of the most important characters in the book.
The idea for Lockdown began with Alex, this character in my head who was a version of me as a teenager. He was a bad kid who got into trouble – a lot worse trouble than I ever did, I should say. And I knew that the story would be about him being sent to prison. But I wanted the book to be a horror book, not an issues book, so really the first character I spent time thinking about, other than Alex, was Furnace, the prison itself.
I say it’s a character rather than a place because it always felt that way in my head. There are bad guys in the prison – the hellish Warden, the awful Wheezers, the sadistic Blacksuits – but I wanted the prison itself to be the true villain, to be the ultimate evil that needed to be overcome. And a villain is exactly what Furnace is. It is soulless, it is immortal, it devours children, and once it has you it never lets you go. It is the thing that Alex and his friends have to fight, it is the force that they must defeat if they stand any chance of survival. As terrifying as the human faces of Furnace are, at least they have faces – even if they’re covered with gas masks. Furnace Penitentiary is a faceless monster, which makes it so much worse. It is a villain which cannot be reasoned with or understood, which cannot bleed, which cannot be killed.
The majority of the planning I did for the books was trying to work out what this prison looked like. Surprisingly, it wasn’t always underground. When I first came up with the idea of Furnace I assumed it would be a normal prison, the kind you get in pretty much every major city in the world. It was actually my little brother Jamie who made me think of the place as a subterranean dungeon. Jamie, who was eleven when I started writing Lockdown, helped me write my previous series of books, The Inventors. He is a great source of inspiration, and especially loves the research that goes with writing a book (when we were working on The Inventors he built dozens of gadgets and traps, testing them all out on me)! It was Jamie who suggested going to visit a prison to see what the atmosphere was like.
I have to confess I’d never actually been to a prison before, and I thought it was a great piece of advice. So one day Jamie and I tried to get into the prison in Norwich, which is where we live. Unsurprisingly, we didn’t have much luck! So Jamie said that we should visit a medieval dungeon instead. Norwich is a very old city, and it’s full of these ancient buildings, many of which have cellars or vaults or creepy subterranean passageways. There’s one building in particular, called the Guildhall, which used to be the city’s law court hundreds of years ago. Underneath the Guildhall, buried deep beneath the ground, are the old dungeons. Jamie and I got permission to go down there, and it was terrifying! There were no windows, hardly any of the lights worked, and it was full of these cramped, rock-walled cells covered in centuries-old graffiti.
I was totally freaked out. I saw the place as this heartless, faceless entity in which people had suffered and probably died. Even though it was made of stone I imagined that it was alive, that it fed on misery and pain, that we’d be stuck there forever in some kind of horrific ghostly purgatory – along with all the other poor spirits down there. Needless to say, I didn’t want to stay any longer than I had to. I thought Jamie was scared as well, because he told me to pop inside a cell and see what it was like. ‘Five seconds and then we can get out of here,’ he said. That sounded good to me, so I ducked into the nearest cell, took a deep breath of the atmosphere, turned to go…
Only to see the cell door slamming shut. Jamie had locked me in! It was pitch black in that cell – they had solid oak doors rather than more modern barred ones – and I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I knew the cell was empty, but I swear I could feel ghosts running cold fingers down my spine, whispering in my ear. I kept thinking about the prison as this soulless, ageless evil, how it had grown out of the earth like a tumour, how there was absolutely no way for me to get out. And I was banging on the door screaming for Jamie to open it.
Fifteen minutes later, he did. I bolted up the stairs and into the sunshine, more relieved than I’ve ever been in my life! I was angry with Jamie for pulling a stunt like that, but I was really grateful to him as well. As soon as I’d left the Guildhall I knew that I wanted Furnace Penitentiary to be more like a medieval dungeon – buried beneath the ground, no natural light, hardly any air, with these solid rock walls that go on for miles. Being trapped inside that cell – those fifteen minutes that felt like fifteen years – allowed the idea of this monstrous prison to develop. It’s where Furnace was born.
Of course the prison isn’t really alive, it isn’t an entity at all, but I wanted it to feel that way to Alex and to the other kids who were locked inside. I wanted it to feel that way to the reader, too. I wanted the prison to be the beast which seemed to creep from the book, the real horror which haunted their dreams, the true villain of the story.
And hopefully it is!
Thank you for the awesome guest post and insight into Furnace Penitentiary! I love how you got your inspiration and that your brother was a part of that.
1 copy of Lockdown by Alexander Gordon Smith
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