Tom and his wife are visiting London so Tom can attend an academic conference while his wife goes shopping with a friend. When Tom takes the Tube to the conference, he feels a strange wind in the Underground. It’s more than just the normal drafts created by trains coming and going; this wind smells ancient and deadly and makes him feel afraid. Skipping the conference, and forgetting to buy theater tickets, Tom spends the next couple of days riding the Tube all over (under, actually) London to try to find the origin of the winds that only he seems to feel.
Connie Willis’s The Winds of Marble Arch won the Hugo Award for Best Novella and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella. Like several of her stories, this one involves a time-traveling academic, except that he doesn’t actually move through time, but he senses historical events when he visits places where bad things have happened — in this case, the London Underground.
The Winds of Marble Arch gets tedious in the middle as Tom races from station to station sniffing the air, buying history books at the gift shops, and overwhelming us with information about what happened at each station during the London Blitz of WWII. This might be interesting for someone who’s familiar with all of the Tube stations, but for me it all ran together and I couldn’t appreciate all of Connie Willis’s extensive research into the history of the London Underground during WWII. There are also too many details about London theatres, actors, and plays —another favorite topic for Willis.
It’s not all just an excuse to lecture us on London Blitz history and Underground geography, though. Willis cleverly relates these bombings and the dreadful winds they created to the disastrous effects of adultery, divorce, and aging. This part of the novella is truly beautiful.
Dennis Boutsikaris superbly narrates Audible Frontiers’ version of The Winds of Marble Arch. In audio format the novella is 2 hours long. Right now it costs $7 for Audible members, but you can get it for less during one of their frequent sales.