Wednesday, 27 October 2010

‘The End of the Line’ – Edited by Jonathan Oliver (Solaris)

I’ve been living in London for a few years now (sometimes seems like a lifetime...) and use the underground pretty much every day. While the underground is quite possibly the single most annoying thing I’ve ever had to deal with (for reasons perhaps best suited to another blog, if you use the underground you know exactly what I mean) it’s not exactly something that strikes fear into me. You get on the train, you suffer the indignities of the journey and you get off at the other end; then you repeat the process at the end of the day. If anyone was to tell me that the underground is soul destroying then I’d wholeheartedly agree with them. Terrifying though? I might have to scoff a little bit.

At least that was my reaction before I received the ‘End of the Line’ anthology from Solaris; a collection that sets out to show its readers just how horrifying underground travel can be. Jonathan Oliver was kind enough to write a short piece, for the blog, showing that underground travel was perhaps scarier than I thought; I didn’t need much selling after that to give the book a go. It has zombies in it as well so counts towards this week’s theme (Natasha Rhodes’ ‘Crazy Train’, I don’t think a title has ever suited it’s subject matter so well…) ;o)

When I reviewed the ‘Pan Book of Horror’ a couple of weeks ago, there was a real bittersweet feeling about it when I realised that I’d moved on and the things that scared me as a child left me feeling more than a little bemused these days. Well, the good news (or bad news, depends how you look at it...) is that I’ve found something to take its place. I’m talking about ‘The End of the Line’ of course, the contents of which had me feeling more disturbed than normal at the prospect of taking the train to work in the morning.

The beauty of a large number of these stories is that, as a London commuter, I can see only too well those exact moments where the commute goes off at a right angle to reality and an otherwise normal journey turns into something that can be found inside the covers of this book. That blend of the normal and outright weird provides some particularly chilling moments as certain authors tell the most outlandish tales in the most matter of fact manner. I’m thinking of James Lovegrove’s ‘Siding 13’ in particular, a tale that takes the everyday phenomenon of overcrowding on the tube and ramps it up to a shockingly blunt conclusion that made my skin crawl. I felt even more claustrophobic than normal on the tube yesterday (because of this), thanks very much Mr Lovegrove!

For the most part, ‘The End of the Line’ holds true to this standard throughout with stories that consistently chill the marrow. Things start off well with Paul Meloy’s ‘Bullroarer’, a tale of redemption and revenge where you think things headed are certain way right until the end when you realise that the conclusion has been pointed at a different person all along. It’s a twist in the tale that is worth the read.
Things also end on a high note with Christopher Fowler’s ‘Down’; a ghost story that grows on you slowly and hits you with an ending that I never saw coming. It’s not a horror story at all but there was something about that ending that still makes me shiver a bit...

I haven’t yet come across an anthology where every story has hit the nail on the head for me and ‘The End of the Line’ was no exception in this regard. While this did have the happy affect of emphasising the fear in other stories, it also resulted in lulls that did let me catch my breath but also left me feeling a little non-plussed. Nicholas Royle’s ‘The Lure’ was an excellent psychological thriller that unfortunately suffered from a complete lack of terror. The ending was a good one, and I loved the way that it all fitted together, but the context of the overall anthology left me wondering if there was something that I’d missed.
It was the same kind of thing with Joel Lane’s ‘All Dead Years’ and Pat Cadigan’s 'Funny Things’. ‘All Dead Years’ was a beautifully atmospheric piece that didn’t quite capture the sense of horror that the anthology promised. ‘All Funny Things’ worked very well but came across as more of a sci-fi piece than horror. Michael Marshall Smith’s ‘Missed Connection’ did the same job a lot better, really building on the sense of paranoia before hitting the reader with the realisation that there is a very good reason for the main character to be so afraid...

Once these ‘lulls’ were negotiated, I was left with a set of tales that never failed to strike a chord. If you’re after some scary Halloween reading then you could do a lot worse than pick up ‘The End of the Line’.

Jonathan Oliver bends the rules a little bit so that underground travel doesn’t necessarily have to mean by public transport. It’s a move that pays off handsomely with a few writers rising to the challenge and giving us tales that are nothing less than chilling. Mark Morris’ ‘Falling Boys’ is my favourite story in this group with Morris using the absolute darkness in a Cornish tin mine to hide his terrors until the exact moment when maximum terror can be achieved. 
Gary McMahon’s ‘Diving Deep’ takes a similar approach but this time the darkness is under the ice of the Antarctic and the destination somewhere no-one has ever been. ‘Diving Deep’ had me right there with the main character and I wanted to keep travelling with him once the story ended, even though I knew the destination was somewhere I didn’t want to go to.

For me, ‘The End of the Line’ was a book crammed full of grotesque highlights as the writers all took the opportunity to run free with their initial idea, no matter what dark corners it took them into. I had my own personal highlights though including Rebecca Levene’s ‘23:45 Morden (Via Bank)’ (just when you think things couldn’t possibly get worse, Levene leaves you feeling naively optimistic), Stephen Volk’s ‘In the Colosseum’ (for showing that the capacity for horror, in us, dwarfs anything a fictional monster can achieve) and Adam Nevill’s ‘On All London Underground Lines’. If you’ve ever thought that travelling on the tube was hell, Nevill agrees with you and gives us a vision of hell that will stay with you for a long time.

I could go on but I got the most out of ‘The End of the Line’ by coming to it fresh and, as much as I want to recommend it, I don’t want to spoil things. Suffice it to say that, despite the stories that didn’t work for me, I’ve only scratched the surface of the horrors that ‘The End of the Line’ has for unwary readers. There was plenty there to scare me and I guarantee that there will be something in those pages that makes your spine crawl. Read it and tell me I’m wrong.

Nine and a Half out of Ten


Carmen Wing said...

I've never liked the underground, more so from when I was pregnant and the lovley polite bunch of ingrates behind me decided to shove me off the end of the escalator because their approaching train was obviously more important than the heavily pregnant woman safely getting off the bottom of the escalator *mutter, mutter* Thank goodness for the, what seemed like, only sane person who caught me at the bottom. Madness - I still hate it to this day and am claustrophobic every time I go up for a concert.

Really like the sound of this book though...

Pat Cadigan said...

Could you please get the title of my story right? It's "Funny Things". Just "Funny Things," not "All Funny Things."

Graeme Flory said...

Sorry about that, consider it changed. Not sure what happened there (had the phrase 'all good things...' going through my head).