My Goodness, what have I become? There was a time when I was positively oozing the milk of human kindness. I was so full of empathy that I couldn’t bear to read about a character losing so much as a drop of blood. And yet, somehow, I’ve turned into a person who reacts to a scene of a character’s face being scoured off by tentacles with teeth by chirping, “Oooh! Carnage!”
If this is relatable to you, you will enjoy The Dead Take the A Train, but if you think, “Ugh, why would I want to read about someone’s face being eaten by tentacles with teeth?” then this is not going to be your thing, and that’s O.K. Further, if you like your romance with lots and lots of graphic carnage, you might like this book a lot. It’s horror, not romance, but it does include a rather lovely f/f friends-to-lovers romance.
The Dead Take the A Train is a horror novel with a romance by Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey. It is absolutely soaked in gore. I haven’t seen this many entrails since…well, since the last Cassandra Khaw book I read (The Salt Grows Heavy, which got a ‘SQUEE’ grade review from me). Seriously, before we go any further, you need to know that this book is hard R, maybe X rated horror, with various characters enduring eternal suffering, blood and guts on the wall, worms and other bugs popping out of corpses, smells, mutilation…I mean, it’s intense. So if that is not something you want to have imprinted on your brain, I totally get that, and you should go read something, anything, else.
Here’s the publisher’s description:
Julie Crews is a coked-up, burnt-out thirty-something who packs a lot of magic into her small body. She’s trying to establish herself as a major Psychic Operative in the NYC magic scene, and she’ll work the most gruesome gigs to claw her way to the top.
Desperate to break the dead-end grind, Julie summons a guardian angel for a quick career boost. But when her power grab accidentally releases an elder god hellbent on the annihilation of our galaxy, the body count rises rapidly.
Picture Jessica Jones, only with more visible scarring, no innate super powers, a lot of learned and purchased spellcraft, and harder drugs, and you have Julie. Things become complicated for Julie when her best friend, Sarah, shows up, on the run from an abusive boyfriend. Julie and Sarah are clearly madly in love with each other but they are both too afraid of damaging their friendship to say anything, to the vast amusement of pretty much everyone they encounter, especially their friends Dead Air and St. Joan.
Meanwhile Julie’s ex, Tyler, is climbing the corporate ladder at Thorne and Dirk, an evil law firm. If you ever watched the television show Angel and are familiar with the evil law firm Wolfram and Hart, you will know exactly the kind of office environment I mean. Anyway, Tyler involves Julie in his shit, and there’s a lot of plot, and at some point I stopped following the plot very closely although I’m pretty sure it mostly made sense and it all involves a lot of apocalyptic type things. Carnage everywhere, you guys.
As urban horror-fantasy goes, this is great stuff, with a lot of action and intrigue and entrails. However, I felt cheated by the fact that the Dead do not, in fact, seem to take the A Train, although there is an occult bookstore with a door that opens into a club wherein patrons such as the Barghest Sisters consume…things. If you like angry women who are good at their jobs and who just generally don’t give a fuck, you’ll love Julie, whose life can be summarized with this handy quote from Chapter Four:
Julie wasn’t sure what pissed her off more – that she was woken up by the one-eyed tomcat who’d somehow slunk into her appointment, or that her phone was ringing at seven in the goddamn morning and the caller ID said “Fucking Dickbag.”
It was Tyler.
I don’t know why that cracks me up so very much, but here we are. Lest you be fooled, although the book is very humorous, the horror is very horrific. There’s a lot, a LOT, of body horror. Things incubate in places where they, in my opinion, should not incubate. Bodies rot. It’s not pretty. There’s a tremendous amount of cosmic horror with
…the people of Thorne and Dirk killing each other for promotions even as the apocalypse bubbles away in the basement.
Meanwhile Sarah is the embodiment of goodness, whom everyone underestimates and wants to protect. Julie’s acceptance of the fact that she should be treating Sarah as an equal instead of being obsessed with protecting her, and the reader’s growing awareness of Sarah’s inner complexity and steeliness, are important parts of the story that I hope will be explored more in the second book.
Most of the romance between Sarah and Julie happens before the book starts, yet I found it to be pretty satisfying if for no other reason than the power of Sarah and Julie’s absolute loyalty and devotion to one another. They have a friends to-lovers/cannot-spit-it-out dynamic that would be maddening if it did not amuse their friends so very much. By the time they reunite in this book, we are already aware that they fell in love in the backstory so it’s less a matter of waiting for them to fall in love and more a matter of waiting for them to admit it, as in this passage wherein Sarah tells Julie that if Julie dies, Sarah will die with her:
“Then I die with you.”
Without thinking, Julie brushed her lips over the knuckles of Sarah’s right hand, with the solemn and tender courtliness of a revenant come home one last time, her eyes never leaving Sarah’s own. Whatever other objections Julie might have raised, what argument or scant logic she might have mustered in her already embattled condition, died. The enormity of the words left Julie overwhelmed and if Sarah had asked her then to take a leap from the hospital roof, Julie would have thrown herself into the sky with no thought of how badly she’d splatter on the pavement below.
“You’re the best friend a girl could ever ask for,” said Julie, thoroughly ruining the moment.
“I don’t say this lightly,” said St. Joan. “But you are an absolute and complete idiot.”
I really enjoyed this book. There’s a lot of dark, snarky humor, and snarky humor is my very favorite kind. The satire of corporate culture is as hilarious as it is horrifying. The horror is very, very horrifying with body horror, your basic supernatural beings, and just oodles of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. Not enough trigger warnings in the world, people. People suffer eternally, no contract is without its fine print specifying your eternal soul as collateral, there are cursed books, and teenage vampires hanging out at the bar watching The Lost Boys (“They were sharing an enormous bucket of popcorn, and laughed hysterically at every other interaction between the actors.”) The book is the first of the Carrion City Duology, so it leaves some loose threads, and I’m really eager to see what Julie and Sarah’s relationship looks like given the events at the end of The Dead Take the A Train.