City of Hell is a collection of short stories edited by Colin F Barnes, which chronicles the downfall of humanity and the rise of Maurr and his armies of insects. When Colin Barnes first told me of his project I thought it sounded promising. I expected something like a The Walking Dead, but with giant It Came from the Desert ants instead of zombies. Thank you Anachron Press for sending me a review copy of City of Hell.
The first story in the collection is written by Colin F Barnes himself, and it describes how it all began. A man watches his wife die giving birth to their already dead child in a hospital. Some time afterwards he starts tinkering at home trying to build a machine. He cannot remember where they come from but he has drawings for it, drawn in his own hand. He is very angry all the time, angry with the doctors and nurses for letting his family die, angry with the world. Thoughts of violence are churning through his head.
I thought it was a promising start. It's a good account of a troubled man. We get our first glimpse of our new insect overlords, and it was pretty damn creepy.
The second story, written by Victoria Griesdoorn, is presented in the form of a medical report. A very large centipede like specimen has been found at the site of what appears to be a bomb blast and is taken back for examination. Let's just say this is no ordinary insect, and it certainly does not come in peace, which the medics will soon discover. I thought this format worked really well, and was looking forward to Victoria Griesdoorn's second contribution to City of Hell.
The third story, written by Ren Warom, follows a punk band in Hong Kong. Their gig is disrupted by the military who wants to take people away to safety. The insects are coming and people need to flee. The band prefers to fight the soldiers to make their own escape, they are after all cool rebel kids. The city is soon lost to the insects, and the band members can only witness in despair how people are being dismembered and carried away.
I found this story to be the odd one out really. Her style of writing differs from the other authors. She is trying a little bit too hard and focuses too much on style instead of substance. The meaning of her sentences is sometimes lost in a frill adjectives and adverbs. Her characters suffers as well, and to me felt more like they escaped from a manga comic. I can she what she is trying to do though; she wants characters with edge and flair. Sadly, it needs more tweaking before she gets there.
The next story, written by Kendall Grey, takes us to London many years after the city was lost to the insects. Rane, a young woman, gets separated from her group of survivors and takes shelter in the ruins of St Paul's cathedral where she meets a strange group of survivors. From the start she knows something is not quite right, but she cannot put her finger on what it is.
This is by far the darkest of the stories so far in City of Hell. London lies in ruins, but somehow there are still groups of surviving humans out there, scavenging what they need to survive. It's really pretty grim, and I question how there can be survivors out there. So far the insects have been so superior and ruthless no one has been able to put up much of a fight. They are even able to release mind controlling pheromones making people turn on each other. It's also so far a violent read, but now it is almost too depressing to keep reading. I even put the book down after a rather unpleasant rape scene, and considered not picking it up again.
I did keep reading, and to my disappointment City of Hell keeps up the same feeling of hopelessness and despair. The story does however develop further, and we learn more about the insects, and how they work. We meet a lot of new people in different places and situation. The final stories even shows up human and insect hybrids who still maintain their humanity and try and fight for it. I am by now quite overwhelmed by how futile any resistance is and turning the pages is a chore. All violence, and there is a lot, is very graphic. The survivors who receive a swift death seem to be the lucky ones. The mental pressure on the still living is terrifying, they are very frightened, and now it's only a matter of time before they are next.
I'm afraid this exploration into the deepest and darkest areas of the human psychology ventured too far from me. Although most of the stories are well written I was not able to enjoy them. It was a very quick plunge into misery, without any chance of climbing out of this pit. This is pretty much what City of Hell says on the tin, but it does it too well for me. Perhaps it’s more to your liking.
City of Hell weighs in at 160 pages (iBooks) and is published by Anachron Press.
Recommendation: don't read