Monday 30 December 2013

Book Review | End of the Road, ed. Jonathan Oliver

Each step leads you closer to your destination, but who, or what, can you expect to meet along the way? 

Here are stories of misfits, spectral hitch-hikers, nightmare travel tales and the rogues, freaks and monsters to be found on the road. The critically acclaimed editor of MagicThe End of The Line and House of Fear has brought together the contemporary masters and mistresses of the weird from around the globe in an anthology of travel tales like no other. Strap on your seatbelt, or shoulder your backpack, and wait for that next ride... into darkness.

An incredible anthology of original short stories from an exciting list of writers including the bestselling Philip Reeve, the World Fantasy Award-winning Lavie Tidhar and the incredible talents of S. L. Grey, Ian Whates, Jay Caselberg, Banjanun Sriduangkaew, Zen Cho, Sophia McDougall, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Anil Menon, Rio Youers, Vandana Singh, Paul Meloy, Adam Nevill and Helen Marshall.


For his fourth anthology for Solaris, a sister of sorts to 2010's very fine The End of the Line, editor Jonathan Oliver has turned to the road story: a genre, as he explains in his insightful introduction, widely mined in film and literature alike — in epic fantasy, for instance, insofar as the road represents the length of the hero's quest — though the fifteen short fictions which follow show that the form has much more to offer.

Thanks in part to Lavie Tidhar, whose guidance Oliver acknowledges, End of the Road is composed of stories from an expansive assortment of authors; some familiar, some fresh. The former camp includes Adam Nevill, S. L. Grey, Rio Youers, Philip Reeve, Ian Whates and, indubitably, Tidhar too; in the latter, a goodly number of newcomers hailing from here, there and everywhere. To wit, tales from Australia, Malaysia, the Philippines, India, South Africa, Thailand and the like lend End of the Road a welcome and indeed defining sense of diversity.

The score and more of stories to be told can be divided down the middle, into those that revolve around the road, and those that are more interested in where the road goes. As the aforementioned editor asserts, "destination (expected or otherwise) is a theme running throughout this anthology, but often it is the journey itself that is key to the tales. And that needn't be a physical journey (though, naturally, the majority of these stories do feature one); the journey into the self is also explored in various ways." (p.7)

The journey begins with one of the very best of the bunch by way of Philip Reeve's wonderful 'We Know Where We're Goin.' It's true, to be sure, that "there are shades of Russel Hoban's Riddley Walker here, in the fragmented language" (p.11) of the narrative, but Reeve's expression of the anthology's twin interests put me in mind of China Mieville's final Bas-Lag book, Iron Council, at the same time. Two high watermarks to match, but the Mortal Engines author is up to that vast task:
"The sun was going down behind them girt moors. I'd driven over, and the line o the Road was stretchin out towards it, an all I could think on was how many generations o my kin had lived an died a-buildin o that Road, and how I hope Where We're Going would turn out ter be worth it when we got there." (p.23)
It is.

Oliver admits to some surprise that he only received one hitchhiker story for End of the Road, namely Ian Whates' tellingly titled 'Without a Hitch': an unsurprising short about a mature man who picks up a pretty girl who isn't half as lost as she looks. Positioned between Benjanun Sriduangkaew's fantastic, folklorish 'Fade to Gold' and Zen Cho's striking, if less successful tale of a hungry ghost's homecoming, Whates' tale is done no favours, I fear.

'Driver Error' by Paul Meloy — in which a father going to pick up his daughter from a party that's taken a turn for the worse finds the road obstructed by the broken bodies of three boys — fares better by the same relative measure, but sandwiched as it by 'Balik Kampung (Going Back)' and 'Locusts' by Lavie Tidhar, it seems the least of the lot.

'Locusts,' however, is another of End of the Road's strongest stories. Based on the botanist Aaron Aaronsohn's bona fide battle against the insects' invasion in 1915, this impeccably put together piece boasts a stunning setting brought to life by moments of genuine terror, especially when the locusts come; "migrating in great big apocalyptic clouds like black angels of death but they are alive, hungry and alive, and all Palestine lies before them, its wheat and orange trees and olives." (pp.88-89)

I dare say your mileage may vary as regards several of the stories in End of the Road, but I for one found 'The Cure' by Anil Menon — in which a car full of strangers travel to the same temple for different reasons — curiously inconclusive, and though the author does a fine job of capturing the feeling of being (almost) alone in the middle of nowhere, 'The Track' by Jay Caselberg lacks impact. Nevertheless, the best is yet ahead.

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz's remarkable 'Dagiti Timayap Garda (of the Flying Guardians)' is fully-formed secondary world weird. It's also notable for its thoughtful portrayal of gender, as is the subsequent story by Sophia McDougall, who returns in 'Through Wylmere Woods' to the characters she established in Oliver's Magic anthology — Morgane and her droll demon Levander-Sleet — to truly tremendous effect.

Between times, rising star Helen Marshall applies beat poetry principles to the tale of a cheat coming to terms with his infidelity whilst his brother in law drives him to his death. 'I'm the Lady of Good Times, She Said' is the sort of story that really needs to be read aloud, up to and including to an empty room, whilst 'The Widow' by Rio Youers — which depicts a grieving widow who becomes obsessed by a ghastly sideways man she believes represents the road responsible for taking her loving husband from her — is certainly End of the Road's most insidious story:
Thornbury Road had claimed eleven lives in the last ten years. An interesting choice of words that gave the seven-mile stretch of asphalt a certain character. She imagined it breathing, elongated lungs pounding beneath its surface, occasionally whipping snake-like to send some luckless vehicle spinning out of control. 
Ridiculous, but it picked at her. Then it gnawed at her. Then it started to tear. She lay awake, night after night, grinding her teeth and imagining the road moving slickly beneath the stars. (p.141)
'Bingo' by S. L. Grey is absolutely brutal: a truly depraved tale about a self-interested businessman who has been working his way through a list of women in an attempt to impress the Powers That Be at the brokerage where he works. When he witnesses a terrible car crash on the N2 on the night our tale takes place, however, his objectification proves a problem — if not for him then the victim, who desperately needs his help.

Rounding out End of the Road are stories by Vandana Singh and Adam Nevill about aliens faffing with the firmament and the dangers of driving which make the case that though this anthology is almost over, the road, and the road story, goes ever on. Would that we could go with it, for though it has its horrors, it's replete with untold wonders as well.

But enough of my burbling about this book. Instead, let me leave you with the wise words of anthologist Jonathan Oliver, who advises at the outset that "it's time to buckle up, sit back and prepare yourself for the ride." (p.9) Just remember to thank your driver afterwards!


End of the Road
edited by Jonathan Oliver

UK & US Publication: December 2013, Solaris

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