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Write On Ottawa: There’s a train a comin’

By Chrissy Steinbock on October 26, 2015

Town & Train, the debut horror novel from local author James K. Moran is one ride you won’t want to miss.

The story takes us to Brandon, Ontario, a sleepy town full of secrets and villains hiding in plain sight, where people watch hockey and work blue collar jobs, and are big on dive bars and bush parties.

Brandon is faded from its former glory after years of factory closures, and caught in an August heat wave: there’s a pervasive weariness around town. Things get strange when a shape-shifting phantom train pulls into town under the guise of an antique steam train that looks like it hasn’t seen track in more than a hundred years. Stranger still, people are starting to go missing. Where did the train come from? What is it coming for and what will it take to stop it?

Enter John Daniel, the main protagonist. He’s seventeen and restless, impatiently awaiting the day he can leave his hometown and facing typical teen frustrations – nagging parents, a crush just out of reach, bullies and general boredom. Bookish, innocent, and a little awkward, he’s the perfect horror protagonist. Greg is his best pal and together they have to crack the mystery of the ghost train and find a way to get rid of it.

The other protagonist is David, a police officer recently transferred from Toronto and struggling to gain initiation into the local force. One of his few allies in town is Mr. Tanner, a retired firefighter, aging and lonely but wise in his years.

There’s also a cast of small town bullies, the teen trio Cutter, Nick and Barry, sleazy Mortimer Winslow, and greasy city politician Grant Fox. While it would have been easy to make these antagonists one-dimensional Moran makes gives them humanity by showing us what shapes them.

Yes, Town & Train is most of all an entertaining read but you can also see it as a comment on post-industrialization, economic downturn and the desperation that can set in amidst all that. The sense of place is strong, but this story could happen in any other small town with the same problems.

“They heard. They were always listening, somewhere beyond the setting moon or in the shadows of a dark alley or under the old furnace in the basement or deep underground where insects slithered through unending night or high in the sky above heavy thunderclouds. They heard the wishes of the town – the dreams that turned over long after midnight, the heavy hearts that beat in quiet rooms – and they knew. They followed the lament. They had listened before and come before. They were coming again.”

Though the book is set in a fictional small Ontario town called Brandon, if you’ve ever spent some time in Cornwall, you’ll notice a resemblance, and that’s no accident. The author grew up in Cornwall and this familiarity brings the story’s setting to life in fine detail. Moran goes beyond references to the paper mill or the neighboring Mohawk reserve to capture the “smallness” of life in the town and all the sights, sounds, smells and yearnings that come with it.

The depth of the characters’ desperation jumps right off the page and it explains so much of the action. That doesn’t mean there aren’t bursts of action to break the aching lull of the story’s backdrop. There are some car chases, fist fights, standoffs and lusty bits with various characters getting involved, not to mention all the creepy scenes with the train. Being set in the pre-internet early ‘90s makes the story even eerier. If the story was set in the present day, everyone in town would just Google “black train of dreams” and there would be no mystery.

Town & Train’s greatest strength is its cinematic detail that plays on all the senses to immerse you in the story. I also like the way each chapter picks up the story from the perspective of a different character, a clever technique that shows how everyone really feels about each other and keeps the plot moving forward.

Moran begins the story with a preview of the horror to come and keeps readers on their toes almost to the end of the book where he reveals how the opening scene fits into the main storyline. The tension builds slowly with a mood of creepy foreboding steadily simmering in the background as we get to know the town and the characters and get glimpses of the train’s darkness. Things get progressively stranger leading up to an eleventh hour crisis and a big showdown. Reading through it a second time I noticed that Moran has left a trail of clues for keen readers to piece together in anticipation of the big reveal at the end.

I only had a couple of issues with the book. The dialogue is clunky in a few places and some descriptions, while helpful to draw a detailed picture, just appear too often, like the way all the female love interests smell like strawberry or patchouli or both.

The storytelling plays on a few tropes I found familiar from horror films like casting teenagers as the key players who first notice a dark force and then take the lead in confronting it.  There are also echoes of buddy films in the brotherly friendships between the two key characters and their pals.   Though I can’t reveal anything about what the train brings what I will say is the story fits best in the paranormal horror subgenre and will you keep you guessing.

All in all, Town & Train is an absorbing novel to escape into, with an imaginative take on the forms evil can take. I’d recommend it whether or not you’re a horror fan. The trueness of the setting and the characters’ experiences are sure to set up even the most skeptical reader for the spooks when the train rolls in.

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