I’ve always been fascinated with the London Underground, and other metro systems I’ve encountered worldwide, such as the Paris Métro or the Washington DC system. As a child I was drawn to Harry Beck’s famous map of the Underground: all of those coloured lines representing different passages beneath the sprawling metropolis, and numerous opportunities to travel across the fair city.
Yet as much as I love the Underground, there’s no denying a certain element of menace there too. Dark and dank corners where ominous shadows melt into even stranger shapes, clusters of drunken folks loitering threateningly near dilapidated elevators, isolated station platforms near to closing time, that is apart from that strange trench coat wearing chap up the end there…and is that a hook on his right hand?
Building upon the sense of mystery, dread and general potential for creative juices to get flowing The End of the Line comprises nineteen new horror stories focussed upon the Underground in London, and subterranean other places (some of which aren’t on any map).
On first impressions it might seem a strange theme for a collection of short stories, but it’s one that really works well, and can be read and enjoyed even by those who dwell in habitats not serviced by an underground system. The swing from extremes is fairly eclectic – some tales veer toward the more mellow and macabre, others more brazen and hardcore in airing their splatterpunk credentials.
Whilst I will mention a few of the tales which stood out for me personally, a fabulous weave between them all was the sense of the full sweep and depth of the moods, atmosphere and subculture of the undergrounds in their various environments their authors conveyed.
John Probert’s The Girl in the Glass tells of a ghostly encounter a traveller on the tube makes, with far reaching consequences. With echoes of Gaiman, both in regards the traces of canonical understory and its more unusual characters that make appearances, it’s an early story in the book which sets a perfect pace to the collection.
Nicholas Royle’s Paris-based The Lure is a delightfully subtle yet alluring tale. There’re wisps of the darkly magical here, accompanied by undertones of potential hazard, as a young man slowly finds himself engaging in an affair with an older woman who teaches alongside him at their school. Editor Jonathan Oliver sums up Royle’s work as being a little similar to that of Robert Aickman, and I’d definitely agree there’re hints here of that.
23:45 (Morden via Bank) by Rebecca Lavern likewise had an element of the unreal about it, in a persistent feeling of wrongness, and undercurrent of nastiness permeated by the characters encountered by its protagonist. Taking the last train home on the tube after a Sunday night out drinking, things literally go from flawed to horrible as the character realises that he may have got on, and then off of, the wrong train. It also reminded me of a time, years ago that I used to take this line to a girlfriend’s place in Tooting Broadway, and of the holes in the floor of the carriages and sparks that used to light up underneath the wooden boards. So very apt then, this doomed journey.
Al Ewing’s cautionary tale of the price of progress in the London Underground is one that should be read by Mayor of London Boris Johnson, I think. Or any member of the transport unions, as a warning of what could happen should you make promises about service that can’t be delivered on budget. Though it’s tongue in cheek at times, it’s also adept at delivering a shock or two.
Pat Cadigan’s Funny Things was a complex, compact tale that really took me by surprise. I had to read it twice to get a full gist of what was going on, and even then I’m not totally sure I do have the full understanding, but I know amid all the confusion it instilled that I liked it. It’s not conventional, dealing as it does with grief, and as with things that may be being hinted at one is not completely sure as to what’s going on, but following from start to finish there’s a definite idea of a breakdown of travelling mechanisms, not just on the underground, but of life and the very paths of sanity itself.
A definite favourite of mine from the collection was Adam Nevill’s On All London Underground Lines. Packed chock full of the author’s trademark allusions to things not quite of this world, blurring depictions of reality’s decaying boundaries, though intended as horror fiction its one of the most accurate reflections of travelling to work on the London Underground ever written. It’s the stuff of award-winning horror writing, but could equally (and with huge suspension of the more doomed elements) be reflective journalism in the eyes of any poor soul who has to take the tube to work -especially on the Bakerloo line.
Jonathan Oliver has done a great job pulling together this themed collection, and I would struggle to not recommend it to anyone with an interest in top-notch horror fiction. The authors writing here are all of solid pedigree – there’s no filler – and I found myself eagerly awaiting each next tale in the series.