Some stories have a premise simple enough to be summed up in a few words, and yet capable of encapsulating an entire narrative in which everything fits together as neatly and as satisfactorily as a jigsaw puzzle. One such premise is “a rollercoaster gets attacked by a kaiju.”
“Next in Line” opens with its protagonist queuing to enter a rollercoaster through a tunnel shaped like the mouth of an animal (“To me, it seemed like a human slaughterhouse, forcing guests through the pen and into the chute”). The opening is, of course, the build-up to the real excitement: for the characters, this is the expected ride on the rollercoaster; for the reader, it is the expected attack by a giant monster.
And yes, this will be expected, because “Next in Line” was published in Devour the Earth: A Kaiju Anthology, making it fairly certain what will happen to the hapless souls queuing for the ride. The arrival of the beast is prefigured by a strange rattling from the rollercoaster and tremors on the ground below, and then by an eerie calm and quiet – an ominous stretch not unlike the gradual curve before a rollercoaster’s plummet. And plummet things do:
I watched as the idle coaster, sitting at the loading station, was grabbed by something like the talons of a massive bird of prey. It wrapped its claw around the middle two cars. People were strapped into their seats in the coaster, the safety bars engaged. The train’s cars lifted into the air and out of my view. […] The detached part of the coaster smashed down on top of those trying to escape the platform in a symphony of twisting metal. The train was lifted into the air again by that giant monstrous hand. This time, the creature pounded the cars and the riders onto the end of the tunnel. The first twenty feet of passageway nearest the loading area were totally destroyed. Splintered wood and human tissue peppered those of us closest to the wreck.
It is all downhill from here. The tunnel collapses, preventing easy escape. All around are the screams of the crowd and the cries of the monster. The people in the queue stampede over each other in an effort to get free, the protagonist accidentally snapping a teenage boy’s neck in the rush. When the kaiju itself makes an appearance, it turns out to be a pulsating, bus-sized creature part lizard and part canine, blood and organs gumming its teeth in a macabre echo of the rollercoaster’s entrance.
This is a brief story, yet one that manages to squeeze an entire monster movie’s worth of plot into its wordcount: readers are given a well-drawn kaiju, a touch of human drama (the protagonist tries to help the girlfriend of the boy she trampled to death) and plenty of visceral mayhem. The story never deigns to explain where its monster came from, but then, such backstories are superfluous to the genre. Any fan of kaiju films will have long since come to expect that, like death and taxes, giant rampaging monster attacks are simply one of life’s certainties.
“Next in Line” makes clear from the start exactly what it intends to offer its reader, and it succeeds in fulfilling its promise. Really, what is there to fault?