One of the pleasures of writing these occasional reviews is the variety of books I get sent to read. Generally, they come to me as an ebook, delivered straight to my Kindle, and that’s understandably efficient and economic for Rachel’s Random Resources (who very kindly hooks us up with many of our review copies) to deliver books in that way. However, with Richard E. Rock’s Deep Level, for the first time, I was sent a hard copy of the paperback in advance.
While I like ebooks and consume a lot of my reading material in that manner, there’s still something quite lovely about receiving a physical copy in the post. That it was signed made it all the more lovely, so first off, many thanks to Richard for the book! It looks and feels great – that tactile feeling of holding it in your hands really does add to the experience.
So while I’m talking about the tangible, let’s (as I am often wont to do) judge a book by its cover. Designed by Rock himself, the artwork instantly caught my eye for a couple of reasons; firstly, the great use of silhouette. It gives away nothing while telling us plenty about what might be inside. And secondly, that it instantly evoked that brilliant, terrifying moment in Lamberto Bava’s 1986 horror adventure, Demons. If you’re familiar with that film’s imagery, then you probably know the moment I’m referring to.
Whether that was deliberate or not is beside the fact. The image conjured up the terror I felt when first watching that 1985 film as a teenager on an illicit VHS around a mate’s house. A good start and that was before I read a single word!
The plot is simple but effective. A group of friends spend the day exploring a section of the London Underground system which has been disused since the 1940s. But there’s a reason it’s been sealed for almost 80 years. Subterranean Horror is a small but growing subgenre of horror – films that spring to mind include Stephen King’s IT, The Descent and C.H.U.D. Deep Level combines these with the long-established traditions of railway based horror, which goes all the way back to Charles Dickens’ classic ghost-in-a-railway-tunnel chiller The Signal Man and extends to modern classics like Creep and Mimic.
All of the above are referenced or homaged – possibly even unknowingly – as Urban Explorer Rich, who is looking for more excitement in his humdrum life, leads his three middle-aged friends, Syeeda, Rosalind and Ffion, who each have their own reasons to be there, into the depths of the abandoned tube network.
Even though it isn’t, Deep Level feels like it ought to be a found-footage story. Rich’s continual prattling about his inevitable success as a YouTuber, not to mention good use of mobile phone and an emotional passage involving the video camera give it the feeling of inexorable doom that is the requisite of the found footage genre.
Much like The Descent and As Above So Below this is a story of two parts. The first section deals with the journey from the surface into the and the second half dealing with what happens once in the murky depths. And as with those films, the story takes a distinct direction change from the realistic to the far more fantastical. That’s not to say that the journey is no less claustrophobic. Rock has a good sense of space and place with his characters’ surroundings changing from vast open spaces to tight crawl spaces and back again with ease. Another necessary device in subterranean horror is the use of light and dark, which Rock employs very well here, with characters’ phone screens, head-mounted flashlights and video camera all playing important parts in revealing (or keeping hidden) important details about the threat they face.
Speaking of which, I don’t want to go into too much detail about what our intrepid gang of explorers find in the title’s Deep Level of the abandoned rail network for fear of spoilers, but I will say that initially I was confused over what was going on, and what the characters were seeing and experiencing. But as I read on it became clear that this sense of disorientation was deliberate to keep us, the reader, as much in the dark, figuratively speaking, as those in the story. By the end, I still didn’t have a full grasp of what had happened, but I don’t think that matters. What’s important is that Rock has taken the simple idea of being lost in the dark and fashioned it into a short (at less than 150 pages I read the whole thing over just two or three nights) but no less effective exercise in fear of the dark. He captures the blind panic of suddenly being thrust into complete blackness with no easy way out of it very well and at times I found myself beginning to succumb to a spot of nyctophobia myself.
A taut, claustrophobic thrill ride featuring relatable characters, with a well-trod familiar premise but delivered in an exciting way.
Buy Deep Level
About The Author
By day, Richard E. Rock works as a commercial scriptwriter for radio and contributes ideas to Viz Comic. But by night…he writes horror.
He was inspired to do this after experiencing a series of, particularly ferocious nightmares. After waking up and realising he could turn these into utterly horrible stories, he started deliberately inducing them.
Based in Wales, he lives with his girlfriend and their cat. If you’re looking for him, you’ll probably find him wedged up against the barrier at a heavy metal gig, for that is his natural habitat.
Follow Richard on:
Facebook: Richard E. Rock – horror writer