The Story Behind the Stories
The God Down the River by J.P. Sullivan
Kids have a unique way of getting excited about things. Everyone's had the experience of running
into a pre-teen kid who wants nothing more than to pontificate at length about the virtues of their
favorite interest--whether it's dinosaurs, Disney princesses, Marvel superheroes, or Pokémon,
there's often a decided lack of awareness on the part of kids that other people might not be quite
as invested in their hobbies as they are. Children are capable of a kind of unguarded enthusiasm
that a lot of adults find exhausting. I was no different.
For me--at least for a while--my over-enthusiastic interest was trains. The younger me couldn't
get enough of them. From Thomas the Tank Engine to Brio model railway sets to a set of now-quaint and grainy VHS tapes, I probably convinced my poor parents that I was destined for a
career with Amtrak. That interest helped inform the ambition of the narrator in The God Down the
River--he's a kid who dreams of being a conductor. In this world, technology is progressing a
little differently than it did on Earth, but locomotives are the newest and most remarkable
Though it's first and foremost a sort of pastoral dark fantasy, The God Down the River was also
conceived as a kind of coming-of-age, loss-of-innocence tale. The enthusiasm of the main
character for the rail lines is intentionally juxtaposed against the foreboding presence of the
spectral train that appears towards the end of the story. Kids are often in a hurry to grow up, but
often find that the things they were so keen to experience and obtain are very different, or more
unpleasant, than they imagined. In SF, that disconnect can be made literal, and more visceral.
Something that is likely not immediately apparent is that this story takes place in the same world
as some of my other published stories. "Worldbuilding" is extremely in vogue in SF and related
media right now, and it was tempting to include some wink-and-nod connections to my other
stories through place names and side characters, but I resisted the urge. I fear a lot of attempts at
systematic world-building end up reading a bit dry, like an almanac or RPG sourcebook entry. I
tried to limit the scope intentionally to a child's awareness of his world, referencing outside places
only obliquely. When dealing with horror elements, I think this has the added benefit of making
the story a little more claustrophobic.
If you've stuck with my story (and this column) this long, all I can do is thank you--and ask you
to please check out my other IGMS story from August of 2017!
Read more of The Story Behind the Stories