Beneath The Ground – edited by Joel Lane
My eleventh real-time review
BENEATH THE GROUND
An Anthology edited by Joel Lane
Alchemy Press (2003)
Cover art: Jim Pitts
It is probably obvious from the overall title what the leitmotif of this anthology (each story by a different author) is going to turn out to be. But I’m hoping to discover other creeping side-tunnels of leitmotif. Search or you do not find. Even in darkness. The darkness that stories would have without by-lines (until the end of the tunnel that is this review or until someone here names names).
(1)The End of a Summer’s Day
A title that seems to be the feeling today (March 2009) socially, morally, economically, geomantically – when I at least look back at my nostalgic childhood in the Fifties. The foundling or changeling blind husband (after a tunnel tour on honeymoon) is a wonderful emblem for this. The protaganist wife goes back into the tunnel to rescue her ‘real’ husband as if going back into the darkness of the past away from the potential even greater darkness of the future. Also the unpolitically correct viewpoints of some of the tourists give an aura of retrenchment. But we have the Stalactites in the tunnel to cling on to. (The Stalagmites can only be inferred because they are us). At least this story gives us an inverted hope. A despair that is a sort of affirmation. One that Horror fiction can only do. It is wonderfully written with a sinewy texture, populated by character and ambiance artfully drawn in a rare short space amid modern anchors … “anonymous as the murmur bouncing from the bus-roof like bees” … “Anonymous figures chewed and waited at the hamburger stall”.
Only the onset of rain can staunch the pain of those once hopeful honeymooners that were the past.
(2) In The Tunnels
And after the rain there is a drought (premetaphorical for the credit drought) as predicted by Elijah (aka Ilyas) and it is Ilyas who was one of Bernie’s old schoolfellows except Ilyas still looks as old as when they left school. A pre-figuring of the Hugger character who (I seem to recall from my first reading of this book in 2003) appears in a later story. Bernie is real but he is a haunter of train tunnels under Birmingham – near Lewis’s Department store and the Nat West (now in 2009 subsumed by the disgraced Royal Bank of Scotland).
Ilyas hasn’t grown in parallel with the years … seemingly … although it isn’t clear who really is haunting whom and who is anachronistic. A bit like the time loops we are suffering today. A hint of vampirism at the end. Human greed as bloodsucking. A creepy story of underground railway lands reminding me (if I recall correctly) of a story in Simon Strantzas’ collection ‘Beneath the Surface’ (Cf the title with ‘Beneath The Ground’) and another in Mark Samuels’ Glyphotech collection. Seedy and dank subways. The ghosts are coming home by never growing up like Peter Pan… I think the world wide web widens even as I read on… It is never too late for the honeymoon period to re-start… But we have many more passages to negotiate before that.
[Elijah had a message for our times about not wavering and being unselfish.]
(3) Tomb of the Janissaries
A workmanlike horror tale telling of two irritable couples on holiday in Crete who are tempted to tour the Tomb of the Janissaries. Ghosts of Suicides mixed with other mythic references, Greek and Turkish. There is a brilliantly described scene in the tomb of the skeletons therein – and the idea that one of the couples (the female one of which has an illness and a dropped hint that she is overweight – draw your own conclusions) do not re-emerge after an enforced ceremony with ‘shredded wheaties’ like birthday cakes and candles. This story, I boldly say, was writtten or published soon after 9/11 and is about the ease of suicide for political ends as well as spiritual or desperate ends, with which we are becoming familiar in recent years, sometimes cataclysmically. In fact, Frank Bough and Windscale (Sellerfield) are mentioned at one point. This story is like exploring a tunnel in itself that at first seems well-lit and ordered for tourists – but then grows dark and trips you up and makes you want to give up the ghost.
(4) The Empty Room
A hilarious but poignant story of an Aspergers protagonist whose room was decorated by his parents with the yellow paint left over from decorating his dead brother’s room. The Horror-conscious protagonist leaves a friend called Nathan in a derelict basement (alone with a zombie or light-eating ghosts or…?) surrounded by the sentient woods … so he could gradually elicit on repeated visits to the scene more and more promises from Nathan of gifts of comic books etc should he rescue Nathan. This is rendition and torture, quantative easing, lack of due diligence ….? Probably not, but I sense an eternal archetype that haunts us all fresh from lurking beneath the ground constituted of past friends and foes…one that will seek out the scent in the air of our obsessions that reveal us as us, reveal us to those who want retribution.
(5) ‘Where Once I Did My Love Beguile’
A lovely story, but one which I thought faltered when ‘telling’ historical information about the caves (from the point of view of one of the characters) which diverted, I felt, from the main thrust of the plot.
Can you have a stile in a cave? A question that was important. A story that holds a touching relationship between a young boy (from the age of five) and an old man – later telling of the youngster’s awakening sexuality for the opposite sex … to such extent that the cartographical configuration of the caves that he often explores and the word Styx become gynaecological!
The relationship with the old man was ignited by the latter’s entrancing fob watch which seems to become implicated in the youngster’s yearning for time travel. The caves as a Tardis that is his girl assistant in itself? Or as a sort of suicide? Or as travel to a better reality? The ‘Beneath Ground’ in this book’s gestalt is slowly, insidiously becoming something far too deep for me to fathom (which is perhaps the point!). So far, anyway. And I repeat: “If you do not search you will not find.”
(6) Going Underground
Adam Smith is the father of modern Capitalism and perhaps, in these days of the credit drought, it is only appropriate that the protagonist by the name of Reichert turns into someone called Adam Smith as he re-emerges from the London Underground after mixing with melded people-swarms and then including an act bordering on suicide (which often happens in that place in real life – and fast becoming, perhaps, this book’s leitmotif or ‘beneath ground’ metaphor?). I have a friend who regularly includes in his weekly handwritten letters to me his real ‘commuter’s tales’ on the London Underground that often summon up for me rivers of people, faces losing their ‘grouting’, the fight for seats, the negotiation of Harry Beck’s map etc etc. This story is a wonderful extrapolation of this into a nightmare vision that I think will stay with me.
Whatever you do, don’t give a beggar on the tube your snot-riddled hankie instead of money.
(7) Lost and Found
This substantial story continues the river of people on the London Underground from the previous story, each story complementing and enlightening the other.
I can’t do this story justice. It is teeming with images that coalesce: an obsession with the London Underground finally bearing fruit as a religious epiphany with a presence that overhangs us all as well as subsuming us; a subtle narrative trick of narrators narrating being narrated in various layers of collusiveness and non-collusiveness; relationships both sibling and sexual; loss, failure, amputation, Leonard Cohen… but I was listening to Goldfrapp’s ‘Felt Mountain’ duing the reading of this story and it imbued everything with a gorgeous sadness…
“‘It was like a cathedral,’ he wrote. Amongst the stalagmite basins and the stalactite pillars, he could hear the sound of something like prayer. He was terrified and in awe.”
There are letters, too, a stack of letters. This story would not have worked in the email age.
I feel as if I cannot fix this story in the kiln. It’s far too diffusive – like music straight into the veins. Like trying to shape origami from air (to pinch an image from the story). Or as if trying to rediscover a place… “‘It was one of those anonymous East End streets,’ he wrote. ‘Concrete gardens. Children playing in the road. A chip shop at one end, an off-licence at the other. It was the kind of place you’d never find twice.’”
( 8 ) Grendel’s Lair
Quite a different, but still substantial, story, told with panache and page-turning suspense, about a ‘Life on Mars’-type unpolitically-correct policeman called Laycock (note the name) wanting to nail murder on a famous serial rapist called Grimwood. The “time-travel” reverberation here is not between 1973 and the present day (as in ‘Life on Mars’), but between the now of this story and the Beowulf of Anglo-Saxon times as an intermittent story-particular leitmotif of its own within the main suspense of the battle between Laycock and Grimwood in Grimwood’s old lair of a disused labyrinth of tunnels where Laycock thinks Grimwood buried one of his victims. There is something macho self-destructive about both dark protagonists, policeman and rapist alike – while the ending has a surprise.
This book as a whole continues to be a compulsive read – engendering claustrophobia and self-destruction, yet relieved by an escape-clause of imputed time-travel (or the recurrence of parallels that allows one to believe in eternity).
From the previous story (Grendel’s Lair):
There was a double-bluff in the poet’s words, however; when the monster’s arm was nailed to the overhead beam, it was still so large and hideous that the King’s hearth-men could only shudder with fear when they gazed at it…
(9) From The Hearth
A completely different story from the previous one. It uses not so much a deeply textured prose as a curdled one!
I can’t remember whether I understood this story when this book was younger, but I’m not sure I do at all now upon re-reading it! There are images of working-class streets with awakening sexuality, a ‘village idiot’ called Hugger … leading to a ‘beneath the ground’ scenario so deep it seems to have reached the antipodes (via song-lines). Here the self-destruction or ‘suicide’ theme is simply by never having existed in the first place. As in the previous story in the book (Grendel’s Lair) the underground here seems implicated with an air-raid shelter. Here in a time-transcendent fashion. There seemes to be a play on ‘From the Hearth’ and ‘From The Heart’. People are frozen within the ground, only their heads showng above the surface for Hugger to kick like footballs…
(10) Nights At The Regal
Wow! This story is special. I can’t remember reading it before. Surely I read the whole book in 2003!? I remember doing so. But I would have remembered this story. It out-Ligottis Ligotti and has a density and aura that blows my mind as well as makes me feel dirty. Anything said more specifically about this story would likely spoil it. But that is only an excuse on my part so that I can avoid critiquing it. It needs critiquing badly. It needs shaking up. But I fear bits would fall off, its ballroom collapse, its small girl go into a fatal decline if I even try to breathe on the surface of this story. It is all underground. It is beneath me. It would tarnish, grow patina. I can’t actually get my head around it properly; it is almost too perfect. Where has this story been all my life? Has anyone else read it? Please help me out. I need to stop going over the top. But at least that would allow me to climb out of the story’s cellar…. (seriously)
They keep on coming…
(11) Empty Stations
“The phrase proved to be the key to unlocking the piece…” is said at the beginning of this unmissable story of the London Underground. And towards its end, I feel we have that phrase, not only for this story but for the whole book: “Moving closer to the edge, he peered into the suicide pit..”
Also it has one of the leitmotifs of modern horror fiction I have discovered so far in all my recent reviews of books by various contemporary authors: static on a screen.
This story a brief gem. One with empty platforms and empty trains … and you are made to feel you are alone in reading it.
(12) The Stone Man
A workmanlike style that effectively drew a scene for me of a landscape of working-class allotments (something I know quite a bit about) and their geriatric guardians in the sheds. A story that seems meaningfully to encompass these allotments and the game of Monopoly and disused railway tunnels in the region and a living stone monster (a zombie?) and social class with its inheritance between generations and fragile boyhood friendships….
The horrific climax came too suddenly for me … but I suppose such climaxes do that in real life! Life doesn’t have the luxury of suspenseful build-up towards its horrors as fiction does.
There is a sense of inevitable doom here that was tantamount to being sought rather than avoided – as if we all rush harum scarum towards death without appreciating what death really is and what life has really been… a headstone and a fading memory. The memory of you, from you, by you. Well, we all had our headstones eventually in the good old days.
“Maybe there were trains whose sound, like most things, grows on you, so you forget they’re there.”
A worthy horror story, but one I fear that will suffer from my own memory fading in old age.
(13) To Walk In Midnight’s Realm
Well, this is the end of the fiction in this book. Can fiction die? And, if so, can death bring its own fulfilment and reward – a bit like religion if not a religion in itself? This excellent story fortuitously or fatefully seems to act as the chief symbiosis factor between itself and all the other stories – especially with the book’s first story (‘The End Of A Summer’s Day’). It gives further hope to that earlier story or at least some underpinning to its foundling or changeling of despair – acting as a positive force towards reunion in utter darkness. As if each end of the book wraps round and falls into an eternal lexic love.
This last story has two dramatically important suicides plus a brother/brother relationship (one being a ‘rock’ to the other (Cf the previous story)), a relationship that lasts beyond the death of one of them, a love between a man and a woman that also outlasts death (necrophilia?) plus a mighty Jules Verne-like vision beneath the ground of a Welsh mountain plus a horde of zombies plus a theme of Religion versus Rationality represented by the tension between two characters plus Babylonic (inter alia) sculptures made from the stalagmites and stalactites plus racial undercurrents plus social class undercurrents (down and outs etc) plus much more that echoes the gestalt of this book for me — all blending wonderfully into a thrust of fiction that sheds light as well as more perceived darkness on the journey we have just travelled as readers. It has a prose style capable of carrying the weight and responsibility upon its ‘shoulders’.
My recent review of another book concerning “I” narration and its author’s response (and it is also relevant, for example, to ‘Lost and Found’ and ‘Empty Stations’ in the book I’m currently reviewing here) has taught me not to worry about the apparent artificiality of such an “I” narration appearing, say, in a letter from one character to another in the style of highly-honed artful fiction (as it does here). It works. This story works very well on many levels including the accessibly horrific.
In fact, the whole book works very well. It is a landmark read for me. There are many other strands I could pull together but I would be here all night. I sense it has never had the attention it deserves and an attention that would pay many dividends to those who give it attention.
Now, upon heading towards the end of this final section of the review, I begin to hear the static of the empty station. Perhaps one day you will need to re-tune that station. We shall meet there, perhaps.
“Only those who follow the story can understand how frightening is the road they tread.”
– From From The Hearth
Since writing the above I have read (for the first time, I believe, (as I rarely read introductions to fiction books!)) the introduction by Joel Lane which I have found to be enjoyable and it gave me further food for thought. Thanks, Joel.
9 · Introduction · Joel Lane ·
11 · The End of a Summer’s Day · Ramsey Campbell · ss Demons By Daylight, Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1973
19 · In the Tunnels · Pauline E. Dungate · ss *
31 · Tomb of the Janissaries · David Sutton · ss *
45 · The Empty Room · Tim Lebbon · ss As the Sun Goes Down, Night Shade Books, 2000
57 · ‘Where Once I Did My Love Beguile’ · John Howard · ss *
73 · Going Underground · Mike McKeown · ss *
81 · Lost and Found · Simon Avery · ss *
103 · Grendel’s Lair · Paul Finch · ss *
127 · From the Hearth · D. F. Lewis · ss *
135 · Nights at the Regal · Jason Gould · ss *
151 · Empty Stations · Nicholas Royle · ss Ambit #161, 2000
161 · The Stone Man · Derek Fox · ss *
175 · To Walk in Midnight’s Realm · Simon Bestwick · nv *
201 · Contributors Notes · Misc. Material · bg *
This review took place between 11 and 14 March 2009 inclusive.
Frontispiece of this book:
BENEATH THE GROUND
An Anthology edited by Joel Lane
Alchemy Press (2003)
Joel: Des, you’re identifying subtexts, buried references to myth and legend and lore and literature. Reminding me why I loved these stories in the first place. You’re the first reviewer to get any of that, I think.
4. Weirdmonger left…
Joel: Story written in 1999 or 2000… not in the e-mail age? We have to shake off the idea that e-mails are now the only way people communicate in writing, or that they are a new thing. E-mails have been around since the late 1980s. They are no more or less essential now than they were then.
Gary Mc (Zed): “Don’t mention the bathroom! The unadorned floor…the dry plastered walls…that creeping damp patch that sometimes makes the shape of a screaming face…the wailing limescale…the gentle drip-drip of something that isn’t water, that could never be water, into the tub… ” =============
DFL: Phew! Thanks, Zed, at least I’m not hallucinating what a genuine classic (among other classics) resides relatively unknown in this book. I presume this is the only place you can read it?
I have found, I think, the only review of this book previously on the internet: http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/nonfiction/beneaththeground.htm Not seen it before. des
PS: I assume he means ‘diabolical’ regarding ‘From the Hearth’ negatively! Still, he was the only reviewer who gave the ‘Weirdmonger’ book less than a good review when it came out.
9. Weirdmonger left…
“Royle’s ‘Empty Stations’ is characteristically strange and unsettling, locked deep into his private mythology of a London map you won’t see printed anywhere.
‘From the Hearth’ is a weird gem. If gems can be fungoid, and I think they can. It glows like something in the dark that has no right to glow. It discloses buried secrets of history and the soul. A critic once described its author as a cross (stylistic rather than morphological) between H.P. Lovecraft and Alan Bennett, and this story is a case in point. It’s like a recipe for something you’d never dare to cook, let alone eat.”
10. Weirdmonger left…
“The Fox story is an offbeat take on a powerful mythic theme. Some readers found it confusing, but I think it’s confusing in the right way: you don’t quite know what is ‘real’ and what is false memory.