Under Ground by S.L. Grey

Under Ground hbTitle: Under Ground
Author:
S.L. Grey
Publisher: 
Pan Macmillan
Published:
 July 2015 (UK); August 2015 (SA and Commonwealth
Genre: 
horror, thriller, mystery
Source: 
ARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 
8/10

The world freaks out over a deadly new super-virus, and when the first confirmed cases hit the US, five families rush to their condos in The Sanctum – a luxury survival bunker situated fifty feet underground in rural Maine. The Sanctum is designed to be self-sustaining, stylish and comfortable. Besides offering fresh food, clean air and water, sanitation and maximum security, it also has a gym, medical bay and recreation room, as well as TV and internet access so the residents can stay in contact with the outside world (and watch the apocalypse go down) for as long as possible.

In theory it’s a brilliant idea. For the owner, Greg Fuller, it sounds like a fantastic way to make a ton of cash off the rich and paranoid. For the few with the cash to buy in, it’s not only a good bet for survival but an opportunity to avoid the apocalypse altogether.

But it also means getting locked up with paranoid strangers in a confined, sterile space (where everything is obviously going to go to shit), and a lot depends on who those people are and how they handle the situation. James and Victoria Maddox are a pair of yuppies with marriage issues who rock up in designer clothes, carting Cristal and crates of gourmet dog food for their shih tzu. Cait, an au pair, is supposed to fly home to Joburg, but all the flights get cancelled and her boss, Tyson, basically kidnaps her by dragging her along to The Sanctum without even telling her where they’re going. It’s a blessing for Tyson’s daughter Sarita, at least: her mother died recently and Cait’s been caring for her while her father becomes increasingly distant. Jae is a gamer who, besides having to deal with lagging wifi, is worried about his mother’s health problems and the fact that his father almost never leaves the house. And then there are the Guthries – the racist, fanatically religious, gun-toting rednecks…

Of course everyone arrives at a frightening, high-pressure time, and their paranoia is particularly apparent when the final family arrives late with a sickly old woman whose presence sparks fears of infection. And once they’re settled, it becomes obvious that the owner, Greg, has been cutting corners and The Sanctum isn’t quite the haven they paid for.

Then a body is found, and everyone faces the prospect of being locked in a bunker with a murderer who could pick them off one by one.

I really like the way the novel uses this fairly simple premise of a locked-rom mystery to explore all the complex ways in which the characters and their relationships shift or shatter under the pressure. It’s why I asked Louis Greenberg for a guest post on the characters he and Sarah Lotz chose for The Sanctum, and it’s something I wanted to expand on in this review.

As always in these sorts of stories, you’ve got a couple of decent, sane people who mostly get along and try their best to handle a difficult situation. There’s one in each family and they are our POV characters (the chapters alternate between them). There are a few weak people who, to the cold-hearted, will look like a liability. There are a couple of idiots and assholes who whine or put others at risk with their histrionics. And then there’s the real trouble – the Guthries.

They represent a whole package of threats – racial violence, religious fanaticism, sexual assault, physical violence. Father, Cam and son, Brett were not happy about having to hand over all their guns after arrival, and everyone wonders if they’re still hiding a few. They treat the dilemma like a combat situation, arming themselves with knives and standing guard as if they were soldiers. Brett unabashedly refers to Jae as “the chink” (he’s half Korean) and stares at Cait with such naked lust that she’s afraid of running into him alone. At one point, as she furiously debates whether or not it’s safe to use the swimming pool, she reflects on how she’s never had the luxury of worrying about monsters because real men like Brett have always been the bigger threat. Bonnie Guthrie went into some kind of Christian overdrive after Cam stole her inheritance to buy into The Sanctum (he doesn’t take kindly to criticism from women, so now she just prays more), and she’s worried about the unholy influences the neighbours might have on her daughter Gina (the only decent person among them).

The Guthries are the worst of neighbours and the most hateful of characters (except for Gina), but that also makes them crucial to the plot, simply because they’re so provocative. It’s not just about the rednecks vs the rest though; the novel really digs into the way all sorts of tension plays out between the characters. There’s the sexual tension of a budding relationship, a secret affair, and the desperate sex borne of fear and loneliness. Wealthier characters lord it over others, or are assumed to. Bullies like Brett and Cam might be obvious threats, but it gives their victims suspicious motives for retaliation too.

In this claustrophobic space where survival suddenly depends on the relationships you have with the people around you, all the little details of human interaction have ripple effects – an act of kindness, a rude word, a glance that lasts too long. What I enjoyed most about the novel is the way this all plays out while conditions in The Sanctum get progressively worse. It’s not quite what I’d call horror (although it definitely would be if I were actually locked up there), but it’s exactly the kind of psychological thriller I love to get wrapped up in.

I never guessed who the murderer was though, and that’s another plus. Mystery novels have to work pretty hard to keep their secrets hidden, and this one managed to surprise me. I think the ending might divide readers, but I liked that it made me stop to think about the book and go back to look for the details I’d missed.

So, overall, Under Ground is a gripping, well-written thriller from S.L. Grey. These guys know how to write characters and make them suffer in all the right ways.

Guest Post: Louis Greenberg on who to trap in locked-room horror

slgrey-ug-photo

S.L. Grey is the collaboration between SA authors Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg. They published their first horror novel, The Mallin 2011 and followed it up with The Ward (2012) and The New Girl (2013) – a collection that became known as the Downside. Now they’re trying out a different style of horror in Under Ground – a locked-room mystery set in a luxury survival bunker called the Sanctum.

It’s a tense thriller that relies, not on gore or otherworldly monsters, but on the ways in which different kinds of people clash in a confined, sterile space. I love stories that exploit the most interesting aspects of their characters in tough situations and strained relationships, so I asked Louis to about how he and Sarah chose the characters who populate the Sanctum and what they hoped those people would bring to the story.

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Under Ground was always going to be S.L. Grey’s stab at Agatha Christie. With maybe a bit of Cluedo thrown in. I grew up watching Christie movies: the elegant glamour of Peter Ustinov and Lauren Bacall and Elizabeth Taylor. Murder of the Orient Express and The Mirror Crack’d terrified me and Evil Under the Sun and Death on the Nile strangely titillated me. When Sarah and I settled on locked-room mystery for our fourth novel together, we knew it would involve a similar large cast interacting against the rather less exotic backdrop we came up with.

Under Ground hbClassic locked-room mysteries are all about the inevitable conflict between different types of people, and they use both the characters’ assumptions about one another and the reader’s assumptions about the characters to create dramatic surprises. Under Ground was our homage to the form. It involves a group of fairly disparate people all rushing to The Sanctum, an ostensibly luxurious survival bunker, to escape a devastating super-virus.

When we started plotting the novel, we assembled a cast of around thirty characters, but soon realised that would be unwieldy and culled several before they even got into the story. There were a few more characters we wrote into our early drafts, fully imagined and with their own plot arcs, who also had to disappear (along with Michael Bay-style helicopter flights and other cut scenes better not spoken of).

We eventually levelled off at five families making it to their apartments in The Sanctum and two individuals who help run the place. We knew that we’d tread a fine line between strong, differentiated characterisation and stereotype in this locked-room structure. Especially with a plot that demanded all-out action pacing, there wasn’t much space to develop characters with internal monologue or flashbacks or much humanising detail. How they react to the crisis at hand is all that matters to the story. As much as we could, we subtly modified some of the characters, and allowed them to act and react in surprising ways that might either subvert or confirm expectations.

Under Ground pbWithout giving too much away, some characters experience a crisis of faith or ideology, while others are forced to push themselves beyond their predestined limits, some crack under the pressure, some blossom. One of the fun things about imagining life-threatening crises is putting yourself into characters’ position and wondering how you might react – this is something that’s entertained us through all our novels: putting normal people into abnormal situations. Would you become a hero, would you try to keep your head down, would you take advantage of others’ weaknesses?

In choosing our character set, we also selected characters who would create good tension when played off against each other. Tension between rich people and poorer people; between people who consider themselves the Chosen – whether by nationality, religion or gender – and those they think don’t belong; tension between leaders and followers; between outsiders and insiders; and of course a bit of complicated sexual tension. This led to a fairly wide variety of inhabitants and it was fun to play these different combinations off against each other.

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Thanks so much for your time and insight Louis!

Under Ground was published in the UK in July, and will hit SA and the Commonwealth in August. If you’re keen to splurge on a hardcover, this one has a gorgeous debossed black-on-black spine:

UG debossed

I’ve got a review of Under Ground in the works, so check back later this week!