Novels about riding the rails have always been exhilarating journeys if left in the right hands. Eric J. Guignard is fresh off his Bram Stoker win for best fiction collection (That Which Grows Wild), so he has the skills to terrify his audience. Luke Thacker is a victim of the Great Depression, scraping by to survive on the dangerous rails of America. Along the way, he learns many secrets to staying alive, one of them being a code left by other hobos, often warning them of strangers who would sooner leave them bleeding in a ditch, or indicating a friend ready to help out a guy in need, through symbols carved into trees. When he discovers one odd symbol, an infinity sign, he learns that reality is a bit broken.
He meets a gangster ready and armed, John Dillinger. However, the criminal perished just months before in a hail of bullets. Luke has entered the Athanasia, the realm of the deadeye.
The dead don’t exactly haunt, but can be dangerous. The spirits that linger are the ones who are remembered. Dillinger hires Thacker to be his driver for a bit before being rescued by Harriet Tubman, who ferries him to safety through the corridors of the deadeye. The stronger the person was in life, the longer they linger in Athanasia, where the living can see them, hear them, and be hurt by them. Some are them are pretty angry and vicious.
Luke takes to the rails and meets up with the semi-gentle giant Zeke and the woman who entrances his heart, Daisy. Together, they explore more of the deadeye world, encountering the Wyatt brothers, bank robberies, and the worst memory of the rails, Smith McCain, a brutal rail worker who made his living tossing hobos from moving trains. In death, his viciousness has only amplified. He tracks down riders to send them into the deadeye, where most of them don’t have the strength to remain remembered. They simply fade away into nothingness. McCain is a beast straight out of the best thriller and horror movies, a former man who can never be stopped.
Fifty years later, another former hobo, King Shaw, is keeping the stories of Luke alive as he tells them to a reporter—and hopefully keeping himself alive, too.
This novel is a stunner. Horrifying and suspenseful throughout, but what makes it work is the strong writing of Guignard. Having never read any of this author before, it was shocking to see how powerful his lines were, how well drawn the characters had become.
This guy is someone to watch in horror. He’ll be winning plenty more awards.