Book Review : Jessica McHugh - The Train Derails in Boston (2016)
I usually don't read erotic horror, but when the author is Jessica McHugh, what I usually don't read goes out the window and is quickly replaced with an emphatic "Gimme!" Whether she's doing YA, horror, bizarro, or anything in between, McHugh is one of those authors you can count on for solid writing and top-notch entertainment every time, and The Train Derails in Boston is no different.
Rebecca Malone is plagued with issues. She's a sexually frustrated alcoholic battling depression while dragging around a failing marriage and a daughter with a very healthy sexual appetite who, thanks to a booze-induced accident, hates her. To make things worse, her husband decided to quit his job to pursue a career as a novelist and more or less forced her to move into Cherrywood Lodge, an old, gorgeous mansion that's packed with evil and boasts a dark past. She has enough problems, so when her insane mother comes to live with them, the situation reaches a boiling point. Unfortunately, not every problem is something that time, love, sobriety, or therapy can cure. For starters. Rebecca's mother did not come along. Also, whatever is in the house has an agenda and Rebecca finds a chest of ancient mahjong tiles in the basement that will quickly start taking over her life. What follows is a horrific, sexually charged descent into madness, murder, and chaos.
The first thing that should be said about about The Train Derails in Boston is that the narrative fully embraces both the horror and the erotic, so the "erotic horror" label is not a joke. This is not a tale about gorgeous vampires walking around with plenty of cleavage; this is a brutal, gory, emotionally gritty tale full of weird/nasty/fantastic/furniture-shattering sex. McHugh is a talented storyteller pushing boundaries, not an author trying to walk the middle of the road to keep everyone happy. In fact, if you think this book is for you because you read the type of novel that sports a shirtless man riding a horse on the cover, stay away.
The second thing that should be said about this novel is that it works on two important levels. First, the characters are all deeply flawed and unlikable, but the author gives them sporadic tender moments so that the reader never reaches the point of not caring about them. Second, the writing itself is enough to keep you turning pages. The dialogue is great, the arguments feel real, the gore has a Clive Barker-ish feel to it, and the sex is raunchy and always has a foot on the realm of the weird. I'm not a fan of long quotes, but this one illustrates McHugh's chops perfectly, so it's worth your time:
"Life is speckled with truths and lies. If you’re lucky, the truths dominate or at least equal the lies. But “I love you,” while having its occasional leaps to either extreme, resides sadly between. It is wholly true one year and far less the next. It is cunning and calculated, even uttered to deceive, but can eventually acquire truthful tones—maybe torturously so. It can be spoken like a script, night after night, as a way to keep some futile peace—which is one of the kindest cases on the surface. But in that way, the truth belongs to one person more than the other. It is selfish, nearly as sour as a lie, and not kind at all. Or—and perhaps this is the worst—”I love you” can be denied, dangled over some poor sap’s head like a string to a caged kitten. You would gladly smack yourself against bars and stretch your muscles until they snap for one brief touch of love. Then comes the yank again—forever out of reach. It is a flimsy inconsistency, and a painful one at that, yet the phrase possesses more power than any other."
While there's plenty of drama and enough blood and other bodily fluids to satisfy any reader, the real reason readers should check this one out is its hybrid DNA. From Gothic horror, time traveling, and ghost stories to horror film references, poking fun at writers, and a few bizarro bits (there's a computer sex scene that's worth the price of admission), there's something here for everyone. The fact that Jessica McHugh had fun writing this one is palpable, and the result is a novel that begs to be touched in naughty ways. Just be careful that it doesn't swallow you whole.