Sunday, October 7, 2012
The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 7: Passengers Are Advised to Seek Other Forms of Transport
From the world of horror fiction, you can expect a good handful of anthologies to come out every year, and one that sort of wormed its way into my consciousness recently so that I said "Okay fine" and tracked down a copy, is publisher-writer-editor John Oliver's 2010 collection The End of the Line. The theme of this one is subway horror, which is actually really kind of a whole subgenre, certainly on film, with your Raw Meats and your Terror Trains and whatnot. This certainly seems logical. The "sub" part of "subway" stands for "subterranean" after all; just throw in an "eldritch" and your halfway to a horror story right there. Just recently I spent a short period of time on Washington, DC's Metro, a system I've taken many times in my life, but not recently, and I became very nostalgic about the whole process once the train I was taking (the Red Line from Silver Springs into Woodley Park, if you must know) left the above-ground, open air tracks and sank itself down into the dark and cavernous underground stations. Those Metro stops are very gray and domed and cool, and although it's all very pleasant (to me, at least), it also wouldn't be hard to imagine something quite terrible occurring there. Of course the populace of New York City would doubtlessly argue that nowhere in the world has more horror atmosphere that that city's subway system, before telling you to buy a hot dog boiled in papaya juice or whatever the fuck, but everybody knows that London wins this contest anyway, by virtue of naming their subway the London Underground, which frankly is just asking for it.
Oliver, as most editors do, wanted a variety of subway horror stories, and in his brief introduction he claims to have gotten that exact thing. At this stage of my reading of The End of the Line, I couldn't say if I agree or not, but he claims to have everything from funny to mournful to garish to violent to quiet taken care of by one story or another. My own story selections for today were based on whether they'd been written by writers I knew little, but wanted to know more, about. This caused me to land on "On All London Underground Lines" Adam Nevill (sometimes credited in tables of content and book covers as "Adam L. G. Nevill," don't know what that's about), and "Fallen Boys" by Mark Morris. Nevill, an Englishman (as are most of the writers in this book) just recently became known to me via the publication of his American debut novel, called The Ritual, which has a terrific cover and sounds like it might be, as I often like to say, "really good." Morris (another Englishman) I've known about for a while, and have collected a small number of his novels over the years with every intention of reading them. I did start one, The Horror Club (originally called Toady in the UK), but found his depiction of childhood to be rather, well, dull, and I bailed. I do not claim this means anything much at all about Morris as a writer, or even my opinion of him as a writer, but I felt it would be wrong to not be honest with you.
I turn about and re-enter the darkened tunnel...[H]alf way along the tunnel, I become aware of voices close to the floor. A muttering. I look down and in the thin light I see the suggestion of a group of bodies huddled together and moving slowly. They are pressed into the wall and on all fours, groping forward as if searching for something that has been dropped.
This may not sound appealing to you, but this kind of thing is essentially all that "On All London Underground Lines" is comprised of, though even stranger, more unnerving things drop in and out, like a mysterious trio of elderly people who the narrator bumps into, a woman that appears beautiful from a distance, a kind of busker that is described in a way that makes him sound like an undead leper, and glimpses of several commuters' hideous thinness. The story is designed to be a slog, although by that I don't mean it's boring or difficult to read, but rather that the slog of it all is the horror, and just what the fuck are the, we, all doing down there anyway. It's a compelling concept, though if I have a problem with Nevill's story is that it expands on this concept at times to make it a bit too specific. From time to time Nevill alludes to the financial aspect of the subway system, and if the government is going to such and such then how dare they so and so? It brings to mind the lyric from "Charlie on the MTA" that goes "Fight the fair increase/Vote for George O'Brien!" Not that Nevill ever homes in quite that narrowly, but still. There's just a touch of goofy politics in a story that worked perfectly well, and made the same point, without it.
For a while Tess had taken pity on the boy. She put herself out, spent extra time with him, in an effort to prise him from his shell. Matthew, however, had remained not only unresponsive, but so sulky and ungrateful that in the end she had given up.
So frustrated is she that when she is attending to a wailing Matthew following a relatively minor, but macabre, bit of harassment, she accidentally lets slip the words "Don't be a baby."
Morris approaches the subject of bullying in a rather interesting way, by, if not rendering Matthew unsympathetic -- we only have Tess's take on the whole thing, after all, and know nothing else about Matthew outside of her point of view -- simply describing it as one of the unfortunately day-to-day facets of childhood. The bullies aren't cartoonishly terrible; they're terrible in the way children are. The horror, meanwhile, takes the form of a genuinely creepy ghost story, which begins as what could be an urban legend related by the group's tour guide when asked if anyone had ever died in the mines (and his story is, you know, curiously relevant), before Morris finally reveals what we already knew, which is that this was no urban legend.
"Fallen Boys" is a simple story, really, but strong, with a very effective final image. Morris's refusal to exaggerate his subject, and to create easy villains, only helps his story, and Matthew, whatever Tess might feel about him, by the end is nothing more or less than pitiable. What happens at the end wasn't his idea, or his fault, and he's just as terrified, if not more, than anybody. He can't win, this kid.