Visions of London
By Cheryl Morgan
London has been haunted in many different ways in fantasy fiction. Neil Gaiman, in Neverwhere, created a whole fantasy kingdom down in the Underground. China Miéville, on the other hand, has a London that is haunted by lurking threats and mysterious presences that canít quite be perceived or understood yet ooze with malignant menace. M. John Harrisonís Viriconium (or Egnaro) is a dim reflection of London seen in a mirror of desire. It is no more attainable than fairy gold, and much less pretty. But these are all fantasy writers. Conrad Williams is more of a horror writer, and consequently the city he paints in London Revenant is haunted in a very different way.
Williams could, of course, have used ghosts. Thatís a traditional horror trope. But instead he opted for a rather different standard. His London is haunted by Bad People. In particular there is a serial killer known as "The Pusher" who gets his kicks by hanging round on Underground platforms and pushing people under trains. Because we have access to him through the novel, we know he likes torturing people too.
Of course there have to be good guys too. Williams has his own version of London Below, populated not by fantastical characters, but by lost souls who have dropped out of London life. The people whose faces you might see on "missing" posters. The Pusher is one of them, but he has chosen to take his revenge on those above ground rather than hide from them. This puts the rest of the community in danger. The hero of the book, Adam, thinks that he suffers from narcolepsy, but what actually happens when he blacks out is that he becomes Monck, one of the special agents of the down below folk who is trusted to mingle with the world above, and who has been given the task of hunting down the renegade.
It is an interesting idea, but it didnít quite work for me because it was too close to the London I have lived in. Gaimanís London is mythological, Harrisonís psychological, and Miévilleís unimaginable in a Lovecraftian sort of way. Williams, on the other hand, talks about real people who have fled life above ground, and one of whom hates his past life sufficiently to become a killer. That close to reality, you have to provide reasons for what your characters do.
Certainly the London in which Adam lives is not a pleasant place. He and his friends have dead-end jobs, or no jobs at all. They spend their evenings getting out of their skulls on alcohol and drugs, and having casual sex with each other. Most of them appear seriously dysfunctional. And certainly the city can be a lonely place. As The Pusher explains to one of his victims,
"We live so close to each other and we never talk. I bet youíve got people living in this house, in the other flats, that youíve never spoken to. There are people we stand next to every morning on a platform or in a queue. Weíve stood next to them for years. They arenít strangers but we never talk to them."
Thatís pretty normal for city living. It was the same in Melbourne, and it is the same in the San Francisco Bay Area. London is no different, but it does have an incipient air of violence that is missing from Melbourne, and that you only see in San Francisco and Oakland themselves, not the whole Bay Area. Whatís different? Adam almost gets it right here:
"In London, itís like putting on a belt and trying to kid yourself that it will go one notch tighter. You end up walking around feeling constricted all the time, unable to loosen yourself in public, always sucking in your gut and pretending to be impenetrable, unassailable."
Yet Williams never seems to quite get to the London I know. He gets sidetracked onto issues like the stresses of office life (as if the modern office worker somehow has a worse time of it than a coal miner, or a medieval serf), or he starts talking about the weight of history pressing in on people. It isnít dead people that are the problem in London, it is living ones.
What disturbs me most about London is that there are too many rats in the cage ó it isnít surprising that some of them turn to drugs, self-harm or violence. It is a natural animal reaction to that level of population pressure. It doesnít surprise me that people want to get away, but Iím not sure that many would want to do so by hiding in the Underground. And if they have a better society there, it is because it is small enough for them to know each other, to have a community, not just a vast mass of individuals.
Having said that, although I could not connect with what Williams was writing, I was very impressed with the way he did it. London Revenant is plastered with enthusiastic blurbs from the likes of Harrison, Roz Kaveney, Graham Joyce and Tim Lebbon. All of them recognize Williamsí talent as a writer. I was sufficiently impressed by London Revenant to want to read more of his work. And those of you out there who have no connection with London, or perhaps are too close to it, will get more out of the book than I did.