Fiction Reviews


(2015) S. L. Grey, Pan, £7.99, pbk, 342pp, ISBN 978-1-447-26645-7


They’ve introduced us to The New Girl, they’ve taken us to The Mall and into The Ward, and now S. L. Grey are taking us Underground. I say 'they' because S. L. Grey, despite the name possibly reminding you of that fifty shades stuff, is actually the pen name of two authors, namely Sarah Lotz, probably best known in this parish as the author of The Three and Day Four and a slew of crime novels under her own name and others. While the other half of S. L. Grey is Louis Greenberg, a writer with whom I am unfamiliar, but note with interest that he has a degree in vampire fiction and a doctorate in post-religious apocalyptic fiction. They have also written another novel called The Apartment which Steven Spielberg has optioned to turn into a film.

Underground comes with the blurb 'They Thought They Were Safe' and a cover showing two lift buttons, the down one shining in red, possibly denoting danger, or blood. The back cover blurb reads 'They’re trapped fifty feet down...and someone wants them six feet under' and after some description of the novel we get a quote from The Guardian review comparing Underground as a mix between J. G. Ballard and Agatha Christie with some Patricia Highsmith thrown in, which possibly adds up to dystopian setting, plus a murder or two and people pretending to be what they are not.

Yes, we are underground in state of Maine in 'The Sanctum', the self-sustaining survival condominium the rich and famous can flee do in the case of zombie apocalypse, nuclear war, meteor strike from outer space, all of the above, or in this case the outbreak of a super-flu virus. It has everything you need – a swimming pool, a gym, a garden, a medical suite and much more. The perfect safe place to sit out while the badness is raging up above, thus we have several very different families rushing to safety, all desperate to escape the real world, and in some cases not just because of the outbreak.

We know that Lutz can write multi-viewpoint novels and here we get the story unfolding from the viewpoint of a different character which is a useful way to heighten the tension, keep the surprises going and throw a twist or two into the mix. The nod to crime novels is correct up to a point, given this is a locked-room mystery writ large, and not a cosy crime novel where a body has been found in a room locked from the inside and the murder has to be solved. Here, the residents of The Sanctum find that they are all in a locked room and one of their number is out to get them. Think of the paranoia and claustrophobia of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Think of Christie’s And Then There Were Now where the characters have assembled on an island and are being picked off one by one. The Sanctum might have looked great in the brochure but when the door is locked, there is no TV or internet access, water is rationed, the medical centre is just a bed and not much else, and there is a lift shaft without a lift inside, so things can’t get any worse, can they? Until the deaths start to happen.

Those that have gathered are very different and have different personalities and add to the tension. Some like their guns, some like to prey on other people, some are racists and almost all of them have something to hide. Not a great place to start when you are trapped underground and can’t get out and pretty soon the social niceties have been cast off and it’s every survivalist for themselves and The Sanctum is soon living up to its Ballardian comparison.

Underground is an entertaining read, which starts quickly, then slows down for some scene setting and tension-building before picking up speed like a rollercoaster plummeting all the way down past The Sanctum and into hell. Maybe that’s what that red lift button meant after all?

Ian Hunter

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