Reviewed by Scott A. Johnson
Written by Edward Lee
Published by Leisure Books
Horror doesn’t always have to be, you know, scary. Sure, scary is good, but there’s another brand of horror that makes the reader’s skin crawl for entirely different reasons. Disturbing is one term for it. Another is Southern Gothic. Taking its cues from history and small tourist towns, Edward Lee’s The Black Train is one hell of a read that disturbs as it entertains and leaves readers with the feeling that they need a long shower.
Set in Tennessee, The Black Train is the story of Justin Collier, the Food Network “Prince of Beers,” who travels to the tiny town of Gast, Tennessee. With an impending divorce, sagging libido, and driving a stupid-looking car, he travels to the tiny unknown town because one of his Food Network cronies tipped him off about a great beer. Not just great, but incredible. When he arrives in town, he books a room at the local bed and breakfast and is taken in by all the Civil War history around the place. He also begins to notice people acting strangely in the town and weird things in the house, not the least of which is his sudden transformation into a horny pervert with sickening dreams. The man for whom the town was named, Harwood Gast, was pure evil, and his stink is still left in his old home.
Lee builds a fascinating story, combining rumor, history, and pure demented fantasy in a seamless blanket of weird. To provide details would also give much of the story away, but suffice to say his portrayal of the old South, and some of the attitudes in it, is horrifically brutal and, by many accounts, tragically accurate. From the treatment of slaves and natives to attitudes of discipline and just how much power money could buy, Lee leads the reader down a path that begins subtly in the normal world and ends up in some demonic version of Civil War hell.
The characters are all genuine and likable enough. Collier reads like an everyman who happens to know a lot about beer and is effective for it. The bed and breakfast owner’s children, Jiff and Lottie, are quite bizarre in that one’s a male prostitute and the other is a mute nymphomaniac, but somehow they come across as real and somehow tragic. But in his descriptions of Gast, his wife, and employees, Lee pulls out all the stops. Even though the appearance of Gast is minimal, the way the other characters treat him paints a vivid picture of a man with more than a touch of evil in his soul.
For those who like depravity, The Black Train does not shy away from most of the more unsavory things in human nature and a few that are so deviant that they will make the reader cringe. Sure, everyone in the house turns into a horny beast, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Sadism, masochism, watersports, debasement, necrophilia, murder, mayhem, abuse, and torture are all here, described in such a way that it doesn’t come across as gratuitous, but it does make the reader want to scrub his eyeballs with bleach nonetheless.
If there is any weakness to the book, it would be that there should be more. More about Gast and his evil, more about the fascinating characters in the town, more about the actual train in the title, more of every little thing. The book could easily have been half again its size with a few more details that would have made it a stronger story.
Even so, The Black Train packs a punch that stays with the reader like a lingering bruise. Well written, disturbing, and engaging, it shakes taboo in the reader’s face and lays it out for discussion.
4 out of 5
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