“The Compartments of Hell” by Paul Meloy & Sarah Pinborough

This story from Black Static #20 marks the first appearance of Sarah Pinborough in the magazine, and Meloy‘s second, but his first collaboration.

You could best sum it up as grunge apocalypse, a hybrid of Trainspotting and Conrad Williams’ One. It’s the end of the world, with people dissolving into liquid flesh, and the only survivors are drug addicts, who have a kind of immunity, at least until their latest fix wears off, and so the ever pressing need to stay high. But I’m getting ahead of the story, which opens with an emphatic, ‘It’s the end of the world.’

Our protagonist is Roy Draper, who has no idea what happened as he was ‘out of his face on crack’ at the time, and we follow his initial, stumbling progress, with the true scale of the disaster that’s come down gradually revealed. All Roy knows is that he needs a fix, and so he heads off to the digs of dealer Stamper, who is just waking up after a night spent with ‘girlfriend’ Bex, one of twins, the other being Jenny. Slowly the three of them piece things together, and realise that something terrible has taken place. Roy provides the Letts Notes version – ‘”Everyone’s dead, man. Everything’s fucked. Even the sky’s fucked. Something bad happened.”‘

The missing piece is provided by the arrival of Snail, Stamper’s drug connection, who had the bad luck to get caught out in the shit storm that came down – ‘”It was a voice,” he rasped. “A voice that sounded like a fucking trumpet, man. Like every atom in the universe resonated to a new frequency just for a moment. Something quantum, man.”‘ With much of his flesh dissolved Snail is in terrible pain, which only drugs can relieve. He is the one who twigs that they have survived because of the drugs in their systems, that keeping high is the only way to stay alive.

With Snail dead, Stamper needs more information, and so conducts an experiment on Bex, who has suffered head trauma after she fell during an argument with him. She is tied to the bed and they watch to see what will happen when the drugs get clear of her system, if she will survive and for how long. The answer is four and a half hours, and then ‘Everything was tearing. Her cunt and arse had split so wide that bits of organs that Stamper had never seen in any fucking biology book were tumbling out.’

Stamper administers a ‘mercy killing’, after which the two men discuss how to secure more drugs, Snail having used Stamper’s personal stash to OD with. They head down to the docks in search of the boat on which Snail’s supply was being smuggled into the country, but no luck. And then, in a final twist, Stamper realises that there is one place where there’ll be plenty of drugs and the people holding them won’t be in any fit state to resist, only for Roy to double cross him.

There’s a case here for the authors testing to destruction the reader’s gag reflex, pushing the envelope until we pick it up and use it as a sick bag. None of the characters are nice or people most of us could identify with, with Bex probably the least reprehensible (and look what happens to her). The apocalypse doesn’t seem to have had much practical effect on their daily routine – they still want to get high as if their lives depend on it, and now they do. And each of them is prepared to betray and sacrifice the others, in the new dog eat dog vomit world order. Stamper is happy to watch Bex die simply to find out something that will be of use to him, while Roy, when we first meet him, is looting a dead person, and when he sees Bex tied down has sexual fantasies about her. These are most definitely not your usual high-minded and heroic, survivor types.

And then there’s the writing, with just about every column throwing up some new and in your face imagery, the tone set right from the start – ‘his fist punches through the dessicated chest and through a lung that looks like a doldrums sail against the rib cage’. As Roy wanders round a devastated Brighton, the streets littered with rotting corpses, the mood of bleakness takes a firm grip on the reader, with what follows, the death of Snail, the discovery of Jenny’s body and Bex’s dissolution only adding further atrocity to remind us that we are merely machines of flesh and blood, machines that break down so easily.

This is not the apocalypse as we know it and these are not the survivors we would choose. And it’s not a fall from which we can ever recover. The prevailing air is one of nihilism, and if the authors refuse to tie it all up in a pretty pink bow, to offer a note of hope at the end, and a cheery message via subtext, then that too is a message in its own way.

Life isn’t fair and good things don’t just happen to good people. We’re all fucked in the end, and it’s only a question of degree, and how you deal with it. And with that perhaps I’ve stumbled across a subtext of sorts after all, that sometimes life just gets so shitty that the only illusions we’re left with that have any value, the only ones that offer any relief, are those of a pharmaceutical provenance.

Other than that…

Nihil! Nada!

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