Speculative realist writer, James K. Moran, has been chatting to Vance on our show! To learn more about him and get links to his work, give Episode 122: Horror Is My First Love a listen.
A slice of small-town Americana, spliced with horror, is always going to be a satisfying mix. The two seem to compliment each other, as they do here when various characters who want to escape their hum-drum existence, accidentally summon a snorting demon from the gates of Hell.
The author has an interesting style, letting the reader get to know each character in short, sharp well-observed snippets, so you care about them before he starts killing them off. There is David, new-to-the-area cop and closeted bisexual, who is tasked with solving the mystery of the train and the disappearance of various townspeople. He’s seen it, but no-one seems inclined to believe him. And there is teenage dirtbag John, a bullied, wannabe metalhead who refuses to be a victim, courting his chief tormentor’s girlfriend. That tormentor is Cutter, soon-to-be undead metal freak responsible for most of John’s miseries. John wakes up by the rail tracks to see Cutter and his pals being whisked away to undoubtedly certain death.
The real villain of the piece is the titular demonic chuff that turns up at seemingly random times, after the sultry conductor “hears the townspeople’s call.” This was a bit tenuous, to be honest. I didn’t get a sense of rhythm or a build-up to when this would happen. The reason for it to turn up in the first place is also a little thin. After all, surely wanting economic wealth and growth for a town isn’t a bad thing? But doing anything to get it, including protecting odious individuals from just punishment IS a bad thing, which made sense. When people start disappearing, it is obvious that something strange is going on. When one person seems to be alive and normal, but isn’t, that is an idea that could have been expanded further before the confusing finale. Yet the train is genuinely menacing, and there are some great atmospheric scenes that make up for hiccups in the plot.
Which was a little hit and miss. The subplot of Grant and his mistress ended somewhat unsatisfactorily, as most affairs do, and I couldn’t see the tie-in with the main plot. It was all a little too neat. The town pedo also didn’t seem to get the reward he was no doubt entitled to. Interesting that there was some attempt to make him sympathetic, but we make our choices, and for me, that didn’t work. In places, I found the denouement to be a little incoherent, especially towards the end, necessitating a couple of reads to make sure I understood it – I’m still not sure I do. Some major characters just seemed to disappear, without the neat ending. This seems a contradiction, but there are times when tying everything up is okay, and times when it isn’t. In this book, the lines are blurred.
Having said that, I loved the inventiveness of the plot, the building of atmosphere, the genuinely scary moments a la James Herbert or Stephen King. There are Koontz-esque scenes of banal normality set against an increasingly glowering backdrop, and a sense of impending doom as both David and John independently try to figure out how to prove that the town is being haunted by a ghost train from hell. And the characters, apart from the nasty ones, are genuinely likeable. Although David drinks WAY too much and still seems to function perfectly well.
So, a little uneven in places, but with characters to care about, and a genuinely frightening antagonist, set against the backdrop of a dying town overshadowed by a stinking paper mill, this has atmosphere by the bucketload and enough scares to give a late-night shiver.
In a small Ontario town, seventeen-year-old John Daniel wakes by the railroad tracks with no recollection of how he got there. Something called him from his bed. Officer David Forester, a recent transfer from Toronto, struggles to fit into the local police force, despite resistance from established circles. Both soon suspect a more pervasive and menacing collusion occurring in town when an antique steam train arrives late in the night. At the phantasmal engine, a conductor promises the desperate locals escape from their town dying with so many closed stores and shattered dreams–but there is no denying what the stranger really brings is the stuff of nightmares.