John Vane: London Fiction – The Black Locomotive

John Vane: London Fiction – The Black Locomotive

Fascination for the substantial part of London that exists below ground is heightened by the knowledge that some of it is abandoned, forgotten, secret or even as yet unknown. Buried rivers, disused Tube stations and plague pits are all part of this subterranean landscape, whose soil fertilises imaginations. It is from these hidden levels of dirt, rock and clay that The Black Locomotive is hewn.

Rian Hughes, a real-life London-dweller, is not only a skilled writer but also a diligent researcher and a talented illustrator. All of this is plain from a novel which begins with an anomalous discovery by Crossrail tunnellers, takes us out of town and back to the age of steam railways – as preserved in a hillside cavern – and acquaints us with a cosmic parallel universe.

The two principal characters are chalk-and-cheese engineer Austin Arnold and on-site artist Lloyd Rutherford. Both are misfits in their different ways. Both are preoccupied by the structures of the physical city. The Black Locomotive follows the two men’s separate journeys of discovery into the heart of whatever the mystery void – officially named Anomaly 36 – actually is.

I read it quickly and enjoyably. It is a graphic novel, meaning there are pages with diagrams, which I ignored. It also switches fonts according to which character’s point of view the story is being told from. That’s a nice idea, like the stars of movies having their own background music – if a bit trying now and then. Completing my misgivings is disappointment with the ending, which left large story arcs incomplete and a sense that others might have been made more of. But, there again, it was no chore to stick with the book to its end.

London itself is largely a background character, albeit ever-present, providing historical hand holds and vivid Earth’s surface location changes for this substantially below-ground science fiction tale. Here’s an apocalyptic taster:

“They sped off down the Mall. Ahead, Austin could see Buckingham Palace, in front of which were a fleet of Green Goddess trucks and an armed military contingent. They gave them a wide berth and turned right, towards the Wellington Arch and Hyde Park Corner. A stalled double-decker bus had blocked the left carriageway at the bottom of Park Lane, so they drove up the opposite side of the road to Marble Arch.”

The Black Locomotive, published in 2021 – and perhaps influenced by Covid lockdowns, though that’s purely a guess – is certainly a feat of creative ingenuity, organising a disparate set of authorial passions into a speedy, fantastical narrative that manages to hold together. I cannot share some favourite bits as they would be blatant spoilers, but let’s say that were you a Londoner in Rian Hughes’s made-up world, you’d be relieved if you lived in Romford.

John Vane is a pen name used by On London publisher and editor Dave Hill. Buy his London novel Frightgeist, a political satire written as John Vane, either directly from On London or from independent bookshop Pages of Hackney. Follow “John” on X/Twitter and subscribe to his all-free Substack, where this review has previously appeared. Thanks.

Categories: Culture, John Vane's London Stories

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *