Welcome to Freaky Fridays, the day of the week we dive down deep into the depths of out-of-print paperbacks and emerge with a rose between our teeth.
The Seventies and Eighties weren’t a good look for any American city. All you have to do for proof is look to the incredible music coming out of New York and LA (hip hop, disco, New Wave, punk, glam metal), the amazing art (Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Karen Finley), and the groundbreaking theater (Robert Wilson, Ridiculous Theater, A Chorus Line)—cities capable of inspiring such an avalanche of talent must be hell on earth. Thanks to stupid urban planning decisions, crack cocaine, Reagan-era policies, and general economic malaise, every city sucked during these two decades. But the one that sucked the longest and hardest was New York City. Have you seen Taxi Driver?
So what did horror paperback writers do to cope with the urban hellscape in which they were living? They did what they’d always done: they wrote novels about monsters eating people’s faces. Come on inside, and let’s take a ride on Thomas Monteleone’s Night Train.
Between 1970 and 1980, around 1.3 million white people moved out of NYC. The city almost went bankrupt in 1975. Cops distributed pamphlets to tourists telling them they would probably be murdered while visiting New York. The brainiacs at the RAND Corporation came up with a plan to make firefighting more efficient by closing firehouses and cutting fire inspections. As a result, by the late Seventies, the Bronx alone was reporting 120,000 fires per year (by some estimates), and there were 14,000 arson investigations annually. In 1968, NYC had less than 1000 homicides each year. For the next 24 years, it was 1200 or above, with records being set in 1989 (1905 murders) and 1990 (2245). Today it hovers around 352 per year. Thanks, crack!
Written in 1984, Night Train is ostensibly about a reporter, Lya Marsden, teaming up with a cop, Michael Corvino, to investigate the 1915 disappearance of Train 93 in the subway tunnels between Astor Place and Bowling Green. But, really that’s just an excuse to get our heroes running around the city, which is the real star of the book.
“They called it the South Bronx, but it looked like a war zone… It was an alien world of gray destruction,” it reads, the urban blight of early Eighties New York providing a backdrop for the high weirdness that begins bubbling up through the cracks. At first, it’s hard to differentiate between the hordes of feral cats living in the subway, the daddy-obsessed Subway Slasher lurking on the trains, and characters like Whitey Thompson (a grizzled, lone wolf city exterminator who wipes out rat nests with a sawed-off shotgun) and the actual monsters that people keep claiming they’re seeing underground. But by the time Ralphie, a strip club bouncer, wanders down the tracks and discovers a giant, grotesque Prometheus chained to a massive boulder inside an abandoned subway station ,we know we’re in for more than your average dose of New Freak City weirdness on a Saturday night.
Train 93 shows up, still stuffed to the gills with its mummified passengers, while other transit workers discover an underground grotto populated by giant albino frogs. There are jelloid, skin-dissolving starfish bubbling up from somewhere, and somehow the legend of the albino Knights of Bernardus who retreated underground in 1624 and are now led by an evil dwarf sorcerer who lets them out to the surface at night to forage, gets everything so mixed up that our hero reporter and cop have to recruit NYU philosophy professor, Dr. Lane Carter, to unravel all the dangling plot threads.
Just like New York City itself, something is always happening in this book, whether it’s an underground pterodactyl attack, yet another transit worker finding yet another bottomless abyss in the subway tunnels, or a 15 year-old kid opening up with a shotgun in crowded Union Square Station, but things start to jell the first time the characters mention Thibaut De Castries. Suddenly, everything falls into place and you know exactly what this book is about.
Invented by author Fritz Leiber in his novella Our Lady of Darkness, De Castries is the greatest practitioner of the occult art of megapolisomancy. According to Leiber (via De Castries) the massive quantities of steel, copper, concrete, and glass in cities and their arrangement attracts certain paramental (occult) forces that can be used to predict the future. Alan Moore’s use of psychogeography in his performance pieces and in From Hell is a riff on megapolisomancy, and when megapolisomancy describes cities as if they were haunted necropolises you can see how it may have influenced Ramsey Campbell as he disorients readers with his inanimate cities written about as if they were sentient, and malign, forms of life. Even Neil Gaiman uses this concept explicitly in Sandman #51, “A Tale of Two Cities”.
Monteleone takes Leiber’s theories and develops them into the backbone of Night Train, writing that the development of New York City has worked a megapolisomantic ritual that caused other dimensions to intrude into our own, with the points of intersection located underground. The focus of the occult invasion is on the Lower East Side, bounded by Broadway on the west, Allen Street on the East, 4th Street to the north, and Canal to the south. So, basically, the Lower East Side and Nolita/the lower East Village. The good news/bad news? While Katz’s Delicatessen escapes these baleful boundaries, not so lucky are the Yonah Schimmel Knish bakery or Uniqlo Soho.
Because Monteleone believes in the “Go Big or Go Home” school of writing, his characters don’t spend a lot of time investigating ancient manuscripts in dusty libraries. Instead, they strap up, enter the bizarre and be-magicked tunnels beneath New York City, find the mystical creatures that live there, and shotgun the shit out of them. Going full SWAT on occult forces seems to work pretty well, actually. They finally encounter the ancient albino monks of the order of the Knights of Bernardus, and the monks conjure up a mighty spell to destroy them. All seems lost until Corvino discovers that evil spell-casting dwarves are allergic to M-16 fire, and he goes full auto on this hideous urban Hogwarts. Have some hot lead, Potter.
Horror paperbacks loved to start with a prologue, these days usually called a “cold open” and they loved to end with an epilogue, the literary equivalent of the question mark that appeared on the screen at the end of old monster movies (“The End…?”). Monteleone delivers his epilogue and you wonder if he used actual megapolisomancy to glimpse the future of New York City. Our heroes have (mostly) survived, even though they’re totally traumatized and more likely to take a taxi than swipe their Metrocard from now on. But the cops have decided that they need to keep an eye on the monthly crime stats on the Lower East Side. As long as crime numbers keep dropping the city fathers know that the Knights of Bernardus and their bizarre, bloodthirsty bestiary aren’t coming back. Gentrification is the spell that seals tight the doors of Hell.
(PS: And check out that sweet cover by the legendary Lisa Falkenstern.)
Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his previous novel was Horrorstör, about a haunted IKEA, and his latest novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, is basically Beaches meets The Exorcist.