GORE IN THE STORE
300 pp RRP: £7.99
Published in Paperback and Ebook by Titan Books on 25th August 2020.
David Quantick’s writing career goes all the way back to NME and SPITTING IMAGE in its prime, though his association with Armando Iannucci (initially via beloved radio satire “On The Hour”) led the way to his most oft-cited televisual work on the writing staff of THE THICK OF IT and VEEP. His obvious penchant for imaginatively coarse insults, coal black humour and inventive absurdity was apparent in all of these – and his 2019 horror-inflected novel ALL MY COLOURS – but for viewers of a certain leaning, his work with Chris Morris on the equal parts terrifying / hilarious JAM (2000) and the still-unsurpassed BRASS EYE (1997) are towering career highpoints. The Paedophilia Special (2001) of the latter could conceivably be the greatest half-hour of British television this century.
NIGHT TRAIN is, nominally, an apocalyptic horror novel with a dash of SNOWPIERCER and a uniquely beguiling authorial voice all of its own. An amnesiac woman named Garland wakes up clad in a green jumpsuit in a train carriage with no knowledge of who she is -though oddly she does recall death metal – accompanied by fifteen corpses. A casual glance out of the window reveals mayhem on a large scale. She is confronted, and then befriended, by a frightened tall man named Banks who sports an identical outfit, has unusual teeth and shows her the way to the buffet car, where delicious fruit in cans – apple and plum only, alas – sits alongside eyeballs in vacuum sealed packets. He’s been on the train for as long as fifty days.
Garland, who has empathy issues, is prone to inappropriately timed jokes and can’t hide her disappointment at the tasteless bottles in the buffet car’s minibar, is a terrific, funny, very Quantickian protagonist. Flashback interludes punctuate the present-day narrative, unspooling peculiar character backstories that led them to their current situation, while Garland insists the best solution is for she and Banks (who doesn’t get any of her jokes) to make their way to the driver’s carriage. Both she, and the story, are regularly and delightfully distracted by gallows humour and very human tangents – including the best ever excuse for loud snoring.
“It was covered in hair and blood, like a demon’s plughole…” There’s a gruesome, dread-infused horror novel beneath all the dynamic humour as the characters’ plight highlights unnerving detail: the lack of engine sounds; the carriage full of large dead animals and a giant mutant bear; the Hellish sight of a lake of heat – and the moments of visceral, melty body horror (“He was turning into a kind of soup…human broth”). The introduction of super-strong Poppy and her loyal decapitated teddy bear adds another layer to the banter-laden interaction between the two leads, though the sarcastic Garland is a marvellously acerbic reader surrogate with whom to experience a “train full of death and blood, hurtling through stone and fire to God knows where”.
Crucially, the heart and soul of the novel is fabulously British. There are directionless arguments about semantics: “Soup up? That’s not an expression?” Authentically pointless questions arise as the situation seems ever more hopeless: what’s the difference between purple and mauve? How many soldiers constitute a “platoon”? And, for all the disturbing experiences endured by Garland, Banks and Poppy as they discover their origins, there’s always something mundanely horrible we can relate to, like a traditionally unpleasant experience with the tiny train toilet. Furthermore, the novel’s emergence in our permanently altered pandemic world nails the little things we’ve all learned to appreciate more – notably, the importance of cake in a crisis.
NIGHT TRAIN rattles along at a fabulous pace – with scares, claustrophobia and hilarity in equal measure, plus a relish in crafting weird, mutated, hideous monsters that recalls John Carpenter’s take on THE THING: our favourite is a beastie with teeth on its tongue – though, in a typical Quantick touch, the horrifying creature is dismissed as a “wanker” by one of the leads. The climactic exposition dump is handled with characteristic wit while the underlying nihilism is balanced with true affection for this trio of characters – and rewarded with a final, albeit modest, glimmer of hope for their existence.