This plunge into cosmic horror follows Julie, an almost-thirty-year-old woman with a diet mainly consisting of alcohol and whatever brand of drug she has lying around, through the streets of New York as she tries to keep herself afloat doing odd monster-hunting jobs. What really kicks the story off, though, is her best friend from forever ago bouncing back into her life with the desperate need to hide from her abusive husband, forcing Julie to reckon with feelings she never really thought she’d have to grapple with again. Julie also has to hunt whatever horrific creature keeps killing everybody at her crappy ex-boyfriend’s firm, and it turns out she might have helped bring it into the world. Fun!
First things first, this novel doesn’t shy away from the “cosmic” or the “horror” elements of its genre, something I greatly appreciated it. We have eldritch-style creatures around every corner, three of which have pretty big influence over the plot: The Proctor, The Mother Who Eats, and Akrasiel. Before we get to any of them, we are introduced to Julie during one of her grand misadventures as she attempts to rid a bride-to-be’s body of the monstrous eggs that a horrid creature is trying to implant inside of her. Yeah. It’s as gruesome as it sounds.
That’s another thing this book does right. If you want gore, you have found the right place! This book did not disappoint at all in that regard. Detailed descriptions are given to every awful, bloody thing that happens in this book. Every action has a consequence, and Khaw and Kadrey make sure that you know it. Where I might have expected other stories to refuse to look at the carnage, one of the strengths of The Dead Take the A Train is that it refuses not to look. If someone is eaten, you see the blood get splattered on the walls. If a monster wears a human skin suit, you see the way they acquired that human skin suit. There isn’t a whole lot that is simply left to the reader’s own devices; this is horror that believes what it describes is much worse than anything you could think of on your own. And it’s right—so many times, I thought I knew the extent of the gore I was about to witness, and so many times, I was decimated by what was actually on the page.
I also appreciated the romance… mostly. (More on that later.) Julie is ride-or-die for Sarah the second she sees her again, and their friends to lovers approach to being together is so romantically stupid that even two side characters, Dead Air and St. Joan, call them out on it multiple times. Everyone wants them to kiss. It is so apparent that these two need to be together, and I kind of love how quickly they get attached to each other again after not talking for so long. When Julie does what she inevitably was always going to do in order to beat her big bad in this book, it felt perfect for Sarah to be there with her. Right before she does it, we see Sarah attempt to stop her, and she’s smart about it in a way that surprised me—Julie and I figured out what Sarah had done/was trying to do at the same time, and I absolutely loved it. I wasn’t entirely sold on Sarah’s side of things until a few chapters before this scene, and this is the part that really pulled the romance together for me.
One thing I found interesting about the structure of this story was the multiple points of view. There are, to be entirely truthful, too many points of view. However, a lot more of them worked well for the story. Julie is the main character and the main POV, but we also routinely get a peek into how Tyler, Julie’s ex, is doing as he works on things adjacent to the main plot. Some characters only come into play for one section or two, but I was mostly fine with those, and I absolutely adored the tiny bit of story we got from a small character named Clarice. The bits and pieces we saw from inside characters who were about to die or from the monstrous entities that set out to kill them worked extremely well most of the time, but by the end of the book, I felt like I should have been keeping a list of all the characters who got some POV time because I had forgotten half of them. The world both feels too big and too small at the same time. I know that doesn’t make sense, but what I mean is that I know a lot about how magic functions in this world, but everything is also kind of written like I’m familiar with the rules way before I reached that point in the story. Something would happen, and I would have to put it in a stack with the rest of the things that happened without adequate explanation. Then something else would happen later to explain it, and I would finally have a new rule of the world, but by then, it was too late for me to apply it.
Another part of the story I found interesting is Sarah herself. She is interesting to me because she didn’t become a fully-developed character until we got to the end of the book. I didn’t really expect a lot out of her in regards to the monster-killing side of things—she is new to all of this, and she’s shown a remarkable amount of guts for looking scary things in the face, but she’s never actually fought one of them. However, when she stuck her neck out for Julie at the end and tried to save her without caring about the consequences she’d face, it hit like a wake-up slap to the face. I found myself wondering where this version of Sarah had been the whole time. Instead of being this demure angel, suddenly here she was with substance. When she proceeded to try and give her life up for Julie’s, I was surprised because that was something I had never expected her to do. She calls herself Julie’s spouse when she goes to look at her dead body; she uses the monkey’s paw to bring her back to life, side effects be damned. She became so much more at the end than she had been throughout most of the novel, and I kind of wish we’d seen more of this version of her before the last, like, hundred pages. While we’re on it, I’m all for major character death with a resurrection, but Sarah bringing Julie back seemed to happen too quickly and too perfectly. I wanted Sarah, Dead Air, and St. Joan to have to deal with Julie’s death in a real way. She kills herself in Sarah’s arms in order to kill the angel-thing that wants to eat New York. That’s a lot to handle, and it seemed like the writers didn’t want Julie’s people to have to really and truly accept that fact.
End of spoilers.
Despite all of this, I found myself really enjoying this book, and I will definitely be ready to read the sequel when it comes out. Trigger warnings for: lots of gruesome death (multiple self-inflicted), Lovecraftian abominations, and vivid descriptions of dead and dying bodies (seriously, if you aren’t comfortable with maggots, eggs, and/or eyes, stay away).