Escape Artists

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Voting has started for the Podcastle Flash Fiction contest. Anyone who has made at least one post should be able to see the stories down in the Arcade.

New groups are posted every two days through the end of April.

Author Topic: PC325: Down  (Read 8573 times)

Talia

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on: August 21, 2014, 12:24:26 PM
PodCastle 325: Down

by Christopher Fowler

Read by Paul S. Jenkins

Originally published in The End of the Line: An Anthology of Underground Horror, Edited by Jonathan Oliver

Honor Oak reservoir is underneath a golf course in Peckham, Thornhill
reminds himself as he walks. That’s the biggest subterranean vault he’s ever visited,
an inverted cathedral that’s the largest reservoir in Europe, with four great
chambers that hold 256 million litres of water, a great heart made of orange brick
that ceaselessly pumps life into the metropolis. He would have liked to work on the
new Brixton extension at Honor Oak but there wasn’t a position, so he’s back here in
the tube tunnels beneath King’s Cross, moving through the dead dusty air, looking
for circuit faults. He comes down every night at midnight and goes up at 4:00am;
that doesn’t sound hard but there are meetings before and sometimes after, and
while you’re down you’re on the move the whole time.

Looking back, he can see the unmistakable silhouette of Sandwich hopping
nimbly across the rails. Sandwich’s real name is Lando – he was named after a
character in a Star Wars film, and hates it – his mates call him Sandwich because no-one has ever seen him eat, even though he’s the size of a bear.

Thornhill has been down for three years now, and likes the job. The perks are
good, his fellow workers are a nice bunch and he gets regular health check-ups
chucked in for free. They’re all outsiders, of course, men and women who work
down here because they’ve joined a veritable foreign legion of employees who go
below to forget.

But he doesn’t forget. He goes down in order to remember.


Rated R: Contains Violence, Disturbing Imagery, and Gore.

Listen to this week’s PodCastle!
« Last Edit: September 11, 2014, 04:16:22 PM by Talia »



Fenrix

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Reply #1 on: August 21, 2014, 01:03:58 PM
I really dig this story. I love the nested tales and the establishment of place a lot. I kinda want to go wandering around subway tunnels now.

All cat stories start with this statement: “My mother, who was the first cat, told me this...”


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Reply #2 on: August 25, 2014, 01:59:18 PM
I thought this one was reasonably good. Not one of my favorites by any means. I figured he was dead as soon as he started seeing the dead.  Throughout most of it I was just kind of intellectually interested but not really emotionally invested, so when the daughter shows up very late in the tale I didn't really have the emotional interest for it to have the effect I think it was meant to have.  I understand why that reveal was kept to the end but I think it kept me from really immersing.

I do think it's really cool that this guy has the job of giving directions to souls lost on their way to their afterlife.  He seems like he'd both be good at it, and that he's comfortable continuing with the work.  I'm glad that his daughter could find family. 

I feel bad for anyone who had claustrophobia and couldn't stand to be in that enclosed space.



InfiniteMonkey

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Reply #3 on: August 26, 2014, 02:01:37 AM
Wow. That was a gut-punch of a story. Especially after all the talk about suicide lately.

So to lighten things up, I include my favorite underground:




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Reply #4 on: August 26, 2014, 03:04:51 AM
Haha, also a random thought--I did not know that "fluffer" meant a different occupation back in the day...



ElectricPaladin

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Reply #5 on: August 26, 2014, 06:16:36 AM
Oh, thank the Emperor that nobody has whined in with "but doesn't this belong on Pseudooooopod?" because we all know how much I hate that conversation.

I liked this story. It was charming, weird, sad, and extremely odd. I'm bummed out that the main character couldn't find a way to bring peace to himself and his daughter that didn't involve, you know electrocuting himself... but I also have a thing for grand and tragic self-sacrifice, and this story certainly qualified as all three. Still, he could have at least tried something else. I suppose he didn't really want to live anymore, after his daughter died and his marriage fell apart... but well...

Maybe I actually have found a problem with the story. I know the author was going for a slow build, but the suicide still seemed abrupt for me. I think that someone who isn't suicidal, when confronted with the possibility that his daughter's ghost is trapped in the underworld, well... he'd certainly do whatever he could to bring his daughter peace. But killing himself? I think that only someone who is suicidal would leap to that as basically his first solution, and I'm not entirely sure that the story did the work it needed to do to leave me feeling like the main character was that messed up.

That aside, the story was wonderful and atmospheric, and I certainly needed to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find a flaw. Well done, and an enjoyable listen.

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Reply #6 on: August 26, 2014, 03:28:44 PM
I liked this story. It was charming, weird, sad, and extremely odd. I'm bummed out that the main character couldn't find a way to bring peace to himself and his daughter that didn't involve, you know electrocuting himself... but I also have a thing for grand and tragic self-sacrifice, and this story certainly qualified as all three. Still, he could have at least tried something else. I suppose he didn't really want to live anymore, after his daughter died and his marriage fell apart... but well...


Wait, wait, he committed suicide?  I thought he was already dead and just beginning to realize it.  Though I wasn't sure what the point of touching the third rail was then, I guess.  Hm, I'll have to rethink this.  I don't really like it being a suicide.  I think I still like the story overall, but I'll have to think on it more.




Fenrix

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Reply #7 on: August 26, 2014, 04:07:37 PM
After listening to this one, the dripping claustrophobia got to me, and reminded me a bit of the tunnel in The Signalman. The ghosts and trains only strengthens the link. The beginning works if you approach it with an unreliable narrator. He's never seen the ghosts until he went on a maintenance run by himself, and there are no independent witnesses. Maybe he's just cracking up and seeing the Underground as an ossuary. However, the closing lends us to believe that he really was interacting with the ghosts. He could sense the ghostly things (such as the interaction with the smoke and ash) and we have hints of the veil between worlds being thin, possibly on specific days. So he decides to be with his daughter forever, rather than come down and interact with her occasionally as a ghost. So yes, he commits suicide. He leaves behind an empty home and destroyed marriage, possibly due to his inattention. But in doing so, he crosses over and ensure that his daughter will not be alone forever, and he can atone for his transgression. Maybe this time, Orpheus decides to stay with Eurydice in the underworld rather than try to bring her back out. While there's a desire to go Up, it seems more important to be together than return to an empty world.

Also, PseudoPod thought PodCastle might like this one. Dave lampshaded the internal handoff nicely in the intro. PseudoPod has some upcoming stories from Fowler. While this one was modernly Orphic (or maybe Dickensian), his next one in PseudoPod will be modernly Jamesian. Fowler is something of a modern-day antiquarian (particularly in the stories that get to me), and he definitely loves the history of places. All of his short story collections are in the process of being digitized, and that's something I can heartily endorse.

All cat stories start with this statement: “My mother, who was the first cat, told me this...”


SpareInch

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Reply #8 on: August 26, 2014, 05:45:45 PM
Wait, wait, he committed suicide?  I thought he was already dead and just beginning to realize it.  Though I wasn't sure what the point of touching the third rail was then, I guess.  Hm, I'll have to rethink this.  I don't really like it being a suicide.  I think I still like the story overall, but I'll have to think on it more.



Was that just an off moment, or does the term Third Rail not automatically mean high voltage where you are?

When this story started, I really wanted to see where it was going. A vast network of tunnels under a large city, many of them abandoned? What couldn't happen there.

Then the first ghost turned up and I thought, 'WW2 air raid victim,' and then he spoke with an old fashioned east end accent and I thought, 'Yup! WW2 air raid victim.' Then he turned out to be a WW2 air raid victim and I thought, 'We'll have 7/7 a bit down the line,' and wouldn't you just know it!?

Sticking an accident that might have been murder, manslaughter or suicide in between didn't really do much for suspense in my view. In the interests of fairness, I did think that ghost was another bomb victim at first, and when it became apparent that the main character had lost someone in the underground, I thought it had been his wife or girlfriend.

And that was also about the point where I thought, 'Oh, he's going to kill himself and stay down there.'

Basically, I thought it had something of a painting by numbers feel to it, like the author had a checklist of stuff and ticked them off one at a time. "Air raid - Check. Fell off platform - Check. Terrorism - Check. Fell down hole - Check. Suicide - Check."

Still, if it floated your boat, Or hauled your train perhaps, then fine. It was pleasant enough, it just didn't take me anywhere that I didn't guess at ahead of time.

Fresh slush - Shot this morning in the Vale of COW


bounceswoosh

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Reply #9 on: August 26, 2014, 06:26:11 PM
I didn't realize he had committed suicide. Huh. My attention was wandering a bit, but third rail wouldn't have meant anything to me. Is that an electrical term or a subway term?



Fenrix

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Reply #10 on: August 26, 2014, 07:00:14 PM
The Third Rail is a standard mechanism in multiple regions for providing electrical power to trains from below. Touching it pretty much results in death.

This has transferred to politics. In the US, Social Security is commonly referred to as the Third Rail of Politics, as any politician suggesting changes to it (ergo touching it) results in political death.


All cat stories start with this statement: “My mother, who was the first cat, told me this...”


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Reply #11 on: August 26, 2014, 08:11:53 PM
The Third Rail is a standard mechanism in multiple regions for providing electrical power to trains from below. Touching it pretty much results in death.

As I was listening I was wondering if that would not be understood by some people to be an electrical rail--I only had a passing knowledge of it myself.



Fenrix

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Reply #12 on: August 26, 2014, 09:29:43 PM


The Third Rail is a standard mechanism in multiple regions for providing electrical power to trains from below. Touching it pretty much results in death.


As I was listening I was wondering if that would not be understood by some people to be an electrical rail--I only had a passing knowledge of it myself.


I think we had cues for it being powered. There was several mentions of the power being shut off between midnight and four. Since they were working on junction boxes, I imagined that it was power related rather than communications, but I have nothing to back that assertion up.

All cat stories start with this statement: “My mother, who was the first cat, told me this...”


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Reply #13 on: August 26, 2014, 09:44:23 PM


The Third Rail is a standard mechanism in multiple regions for providing electrical power to trains from below. Touching it pretty much results in death.


As I was listening I was wondering if that would not be understood by some people to be an electrical rail--I only had a passing knowledge of it myself.


I think we had cues for it being powered. There was several mentions of the power being shut off between midnight and four. Since they were working on junction boxes, I imagined that it was power related rather than communications, but I have nothing to back that assertion up.

No no, you're right.  It's just that I would suspect that for quite a lot of people "third rail" doesn't mean anything in particular--if I hadn't had a vague recollection that was the power I would've maybe guessed it was just an extra rail between the other two for redundancy or something.



Moritz

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Reply #14 on: August 27, 2014, 08:27:50 AM
Also didn't catch the part about the third rail, as in my country, it mostly works via cables above the tram.

I generally liked the story, although like SpareInch I didn't find it terribly original/ surprising.

Concerning the use of the London underground in fantasy: Neverwhere was recently available very cheaply on audible and I am going to listen to it soon :) (already read the book, the comic, and watched the series, so yes, the introduction wasn't a spoiler). There is even a German rip off of Neverwhere called Lycidas by Christoph Marzi, which acknowledges its sources by naming characters Neil and Mieville...

Hm, looking forward to visiting London in two weeks!



SpareInch

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Reply #15 on: August 27, 2014, 03:57:47 PM
Also didn't catch the part about the third rail, as in my country, it mostly works via cables above the tram.

Yeah, my local light rail network, The Tyne And Wear Metro, also uses overhead lines, and to be honest, I thought London Underground did too. Maybe it uses both. It's an old system, and I know some of the oldest tunnels still have big holes in the roof to let the smoke from the steam locos escape.

Still, in The UK, The Third Rail on any rail network is always assumed to be electrified.

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Reply #16 on: August 29, 2014, 12:05:38 AM
Man, GREAT story! It has a bunch of stuff I love -- in no particular order: England, the Underground, being underground, being alone underground, ghosts, tragedy, melancholy and a strange kind of redemption. Beautifully atmospheric.


Devoted135

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Reply #17 on: August 29, 2014, 03:38:55 AM
Somehow this story managed to be continuously changing directions (or at least changing narrative thrust), and yet it didn't come off as incoherent or disjointed. Very impressive. I have to admit that I missed the suicide, possibly due to noise from cleaning the bathtub at the time. At what point exactly did he die? Was it only just before he met up with his daughter?



kibitzer

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Reply #18 on: August 29, 2014, 04:52:09 AM
See discussion above about the "third rail" :)


Devoted135

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Reply #19 on: August 29, 2014, 06:15:19 PM
See discussion above about the "third rail" :)

What I'm hoping is that someone will remember at what point in the narrative he stepped on the third rail. Right after he split from his partner? Not until after the third ghost?



Fenrix

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Reply #20 on: August 29, 2014, 06:39:00 PM
See discussion above about the "third rail" :)

What I'm hoping is that someone will remember at what point in the narrative he stepped on the third rail. Right after he split from his partner? Not until after the third ghost?

Immediately before he sees his daughter.

Quote

"Thornhill looks down at the rails. Without hesitation he steps up on them and hops from one to the other, crossing the track to the far side of the tunnel. Halfway across he stops, balancing on the third rail. Slowly and deliberately he plants his right foot down on the ground. He has a strange sensation, unpleasant but momentary. It leaves him with a feeling of transformation, of departure and arrival. Then he continues to the opposite wall and waits.

"It isn’t long before she appears on the other side of the line, outlined against the wet black brick. She has round brown eyes, dark hair cropped in a French bob, a chequered skirt, a navy blue sweater and knee socks, just as he remembered. So like her mother. She looks over and gravely acknowledges him."


All cat stories start with this statement: “My mother, who was the first cat, told me this...”


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Reply #21 on: August 29, 2014, 06:43:44 PM
Thanks, Fenrix.

I loved how subtle that passage was, to be honest. Just like taking a left turn, instead of a right one.


Devoted135

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Reply #22 on: August 29, 2014, 08:12:41 PM
Thanks so much Fenrix!



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Reply #23 on: August 30, 2014, 05:23:10 PM
I liked the underground world created. I missed an impulsivity to his suicide; in the story it was so intellectual. Suicide seems to me to be an immediate, unthoughtful response to overwhelming anguish. I would have believed his suicide more if he had met his daughter first then felt tormented for failing to protect his lovely daughter from riding in the street, from getting too close to the construction barriers, from falling down the hole--for not rescuing her. And also feeling horrible for destroying her family and not being the father she needed. 
I note that parents often say they would die for their child. But they never mean intellectual, long-term commitments, such as quitting smoking so they don't die before their children marry, or better managing their anger so the child grows up in a more peaceful, less distraught home. They mean impulsive choices where they get to be the hero, like taking a bullet or going under a bus.
With a bit of time and reflection, I'm harrowed by the thought of him making such a cold decision based only on him understanding that he will see his daughter and that he owes her some comfort.



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Reply #24 on: August 30, 2014, 05:28:45 PM
The quote "No one should brave the underworld alone" is misattributed to E.A.Poe. The quote is from the singer Poe.