Under Ground | S.L. Grey | 2015, Pb 2016 | Macmillan | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book
The end of the world is coming. How the world will end is not yet known but just the threat of it is enough for a small number of wealthy – or desperate – families to buy into the Sanctum. The Sanctum is a silo buried into the ground below Maine in the US. The glossy brochure celebrates its eight floors, filled with luxury apartments, a gym, recreation room, medical room, swimming pool and a garden in which life-saving vegetables can be grown, complementing the enormous supplies of tinned and fresh food. All mod cons will allow the lucky to live out the apocalypse in comfort and safety.
But that is the brochure. When a virus breaks out in Asia and spreads quickly to threaten the US, five families race to the Sanctum – the Parks, the Guthries, the Gills (with au pair Cait), the Maddoxes and the Dannhausers. They discover that there is only one thing worse than the apocalypse and that’s trying to survive the apocalypse in the Sanctum. It is incomplete, inadequately stocked, its medical room not yet built, and the man in charge – Greg Fuller (living on floor 2) – is clearly a man to cut the corners that matter most. When the Sanctum is sealed with no way to reopen its vault doors, the residents discover that they have entered a hell that rivals the outside panic that is beamed into their televisions. One of their number is found dead, murdered, and it’s not long before others follow, along with power, internet and then more basic needs. And as the numbers decline, the Sanctum grows darker, dirtier and takes up a stench that cannot be overcome.
Under Ground is a fast, tense and extremely claustrophobic horror thriller in which the Sanctum almost takes on a life of its own, doing all it can to rot the lives of the men, women and children captured inside it. Events outside are most definitely secondary to this more private and intimate apocalypse. The horror of the Sanctum and the awful fate of its inhabitants is rivalled in unpleasantness by the nature of those inhabitants. With extremely few exceptions, these are not likeable people and as the narrative moves between them it becomes easier and easier to wonder (or hope) which of them will be picked off next.
There is a classic feel to the mystery – a whodunnit within a confined setting, the murderer living among his or her victims, an increasing sense of terror and self-preservation experienced by those left standing, for now. Under Ground has an added atmosphere of horror, thanks to the scenario, the entrapment and the almost Shining feel that the Sanctum is turning people mad.
The novel is successful in evoking mood and atmosphere but its characters work less well. There are stereotypes galore here – the redneck family that treads on its women, rapes for fun and wants to shoot foreigners; the Asian brainy kid; the mysterious spy; the fat woman who does good but could easily die making the effort; the glamorous younger wife with her annoying little dog; and the grief stricken father who can’t deal with his daughter. And others. This did make me consider abandoning the novel at one point, especially when the threat of rape becomes a prominent theme. However, the second part of the novel – once the numbers of the unpleasant have been reduced – is much more absorbing and it does become intriguing. The mystery grows and the conclusion is gripping.
The authors (Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg) do a wonderful job of conveying the fear, misery and disgust of the Sanctum’s inhabitants. The stench is palpable. Under Ground is an undemanding and entertaining read that builds to an exhilarating and surprising end. I do, though, think it could have delivered much more.