Jesse Gordon, driven to a shocking murder by the killing of his wife and infant daughter, condemns himself to life underground in the New York City subway system. Abandoning the light of day, he finds an evil as old as time, and a redemption which must be bought by a price far greater than death.
Vintage horror has got to be one of the most amusing genres to read. Whilst slightly problematic a lot of the time, you can count yourself in for corny, bloody goodness- and Lowland Rider by Chet Williamson is no exception. I went into this one completely blind, and considering I’ve not seen anyone talk about this, my expectations were not incredibly high- how wrong I was.
The scariest type of horror is feasible. In Lowland Rider, Williamson explores the grim reality of the NYC underground, and whilst there are some fun culty religious elements, the novel centers around poverty, hunger and desperation. Chet interweaves a subtle backdrop of concentrated misery into his writing, diluted of course with jaw-dropping horror. Infused with New York City culture, Williamson encapsulates just how scary the world can be, and I truly loved every moment.
We largely follow Jesse Gordon, a happy family man who lives with his wife Donna and infant daughter Jennifer. His entire livelihood takes a tumble-turn for the worse when the first of a series of devastating misfortunes leaves him completely broken, resulting in Jesse taking on permanent residence in the subway. Gradually Gordon begins to adapt to the “skell,” life, living off discarded scraps of hotdog, hopping from train to train- and even befriending “Rags,” an amiable wino who may be harboring secrets of his own. However, just as Gordon is growing accustomed to the skell lifestyle, a plethora of muggings and murders occur, all linked by one sinister figurehead: Enoch. Meanwhile, a crooked cop, attempting to supply his heroin-addicted wife, dominates the underground crime network, unafraid to punish those who stick their noses where they don’t belong. Having decided his life is not all that worth living, Gordon embarks on a quest- he will rid the New York City subway of bent coppers and cult leaders- or die trying.
Lowland Rider offers an intricate fragmented structure (think a very gory Love Actually) in which the reader is able to read from the first-person perspective of a wide range of characters. From a crack-addicted janitor to the vigilante protagonist to the psycho-killer old lady, each unique narrator differs. Whilst the plot can stand on its own two feet, any sense of boredom is nipped in the bud by the short sharp chapters, the differing perspectives being a bonus.
Enoch makes for an astounding adversary to our vigilante protagonist Jesse. In Judaism, 3 books are attributed to Enoch (a religious figure) the first of which is a religious apocalyptic text. These aren’t considered canonical due to their irregularities with the Torah. Considering the quite dark excerpts discussing demons and the Genesis flood, the mystery surrounding the origins of the texts, and the general rejection of the books as canonical, Enoch makes a fitting name for our mysterious antagonist. He first appears following the death of a passenger at the beginning of the book, really, not the loveliest of openings- and continues to seek out death and destruction. He quickly gains a following, a group, who in return for wealth, bring him fresh body parts (yum yum). One skell in particular, Gladys- who also goes by Baggie, becomes particularly obsessed- convinced Enoch is a God.
It’s important to address some of the language used and some of the themes mentioned in the book. When you open a vintage horror novel, it’s crucial to remember that the book was written to be offensive and shocking and taboo, even back then- and today, some of the content is simply unacceptable. Whilst these things shouldn’t be excused, we need to bear in mind the vast cultural differences- and if you do choose to read this one, you’ll absolutely see what I mean.
For those who enjoyed “The Light at The End,” by Skipp and Spector, as well as obviously the New York underground theme, this has the same good vs evil vibes in common.
Five star ratings are a rarity for me. My system is plain and simple in terms of 10/10s – it must be perfect. Now, this may make me the ARC reader from hell, but it means I can tell you with confidence and conviction that Lowland Rider by Chet Williamson is a great book, and it’s one I absolutely recommend.
Overall, Lowland Rider is a gritty, bleak, splatter masterpiece- that must be added to the Goodreads shelf of any vintage horror reader. I can only hope and pray this becomes a Paperback from Hell (Valancourt Books) at some point in the future, so I can pop it on my 5 star reads shelf.