In the hectic time leading up to the publication of Rustblind and Silverbright, our anthology of railway-themed slipstream and horror, I have invited short blog contributions from the authors included in that book, which I will be publishing at irregular intervals over the next month or two. First up is Nina Allan, who starts things off with a brief examination of the magic of trains . . .
Of Trains and Books and Stories – Haunted by Rail
by Nina Allan
Strangers on a Train, Anna Karenina, Murder on the Orient Express, Railsea, The Taking of Pelham 123, The Station Agent, The Manchurian Candidate, The Lady Vanishes, Horror Express, The Glamour, Brief Encounter, 3:10 to Yuma – you’ll immediately spot what these classic films and novels all have in common, and no doubt you’ll have your own favourites to add to the list. And once you’ve done that, you can perform an interesting experiment: try and replace the train in your favourite railway story with a motor car.
You’ll find that you can’t do it. Even if you can, you’ll sense that the character of that book or movie has been altered in some fundamental way, and at great detriment to the atmosphere of the story. If Anna had travelled between Moscow and St Petersburg in a chauffeured limo she’d never have met Vronsky. Guy would certainly never have been inveigled into a murder plot by the obsessive Bruno if he’d driven to meet his wife instead of taking the train, and whoever heard of hunting giant moles from the back of a Nissan Micra?
Taken simply in terms of plot, railways offer a whole variety of opportunities for drama that are denied to you as a writer if you take to the road. The opportunity for encountering total strangers, for one. The time for idle fantasy about your travelling companions, the chance to gaze out of the window at the passing landscape and the architecture of unknown towns, to study the people, clustered closely together on the station platforms. You can write letters on trains, read on trains, have conversations, discard contraband, secrete monsters, murder guards, hide from your pursuers. As with the list of train books and stories itself, the possibilities are endless.
It is a lot more than simple mechanics though. There is a poetic grandeur about trains that is almost entirely absent from road transport. You might use a sports car to indicate the arrogance of a character, or financial impetuousness, or sexual garrulousness, but aside from Stephen King (Christine, From a Buick 8, ‘The Road Virus Heads North’) I can’t think of many writers who have cared enough about cars to make them the linchpin of their stories. Cars are prosaic, pragmatic, a convenient means of transport from A to B but little more. A train is a complex milieu, a contained hierarchy, a world in miniature. In Christopher Priest’s novel Inverted World, a city becomes a vast train travelling on rails that have to be laid perpetually in front of it as it goes along, rolling forward towards an unreachable destination. In Robert Bloch’s story ‘That Hellbound Train’, the train that carries the night mail becomes a metaphor for eternity in the company of the devil.
When you travel by road, there’s no time to think. Conditions inside a car are cramped and oppressive, the view is mostly restricted to the oil-streaked, potholed surface of the tarmac strip you’re travelling on or the rear bumpers of the vehicle in front. The landscape of motorways is the landscape of ruination, of defeat, of service stations and superstores and ubiquitous brand names. Revelling in homogeneity and the deadpan of concrete, the destructive, invasive architecture of roads is by its very nature ugly. The repetitious drone and grind of cars moving along a dual carriageway beats inside the skull like the noise of a hammer drill. Your temper rises, your desperation for fresh air increases, your head is filled only with thoughts of escape, of how long it will be before you reach your destination.
Train journeys we remember as rites of passage – it’s no accident that JK Rowling has her young wizards make the journey to Hogwarts by rail rather than by road. The train passes through the human landscape not as a thief but as a guest, its hypnotic clack-clacking insinuating itself inside the spaces of the mind like a mantra for dreaming. The railway’s architecture of bridges and tunnels, stationmaster’s houses, viaducts and depots and platforms and level crossings are part of the language of poetry and above all, memory. Even the rails the trains run on are of a pleasing design, silvery in the moonlight, glistening snakes of time, economical both in terms of the space they occupy and the cost to the environment.
The opening of a new railway line is an opening up of new opportunities, not just for physical travel but for the life of the mind.
- The longest railway bench in the world is on Platform 1 at Scarborough (152 yards)
- The longest railway bridge in the world is the Danyang-Kunshun Great Bridge, a viaduct on the Beijing to Shanghai high speed railway in China (540,000 ft)
- The longest station platform in the world is at Gorakhpur Station in Uttar Pradesh (1,324 m)
- The longest freight trains in the world are to be found in North America and often approach 4km in length
- The longest passenger train in the world is the Ghan, the 1,200 m train that runs the north-south route between Darwin and Adelaide
Statistics like this haunt the imagination. They command attention. They demand story.
The very first train journey I remember was on the London tube. I was four years old or thereabouts, travelling with my mother and two-year-old brother between Euston and Victoria on our way to visit my grandmother in Goring-by-sea. My brother dashed out on to the platform two stops early and my mother had to dash out too, to yank him back. It’s difficult to remember when I realised I was in love with trains, not just with the business of travelling on them but with the paraphernalia that we call Railway – route maps, platform tickets, trackside buddleia and cow parsley, the sharp tap-tap-tap of a pair of smart city shoes traversing the platform of a suburban station on a baking afternoon in mid July. Edward Thomas’s lines on Adlestrop, Richard Rodney Bennett’s music for the Orient Express as it rattles out of Constantinople at the start of its fatal journey into crime. All these things and many others. Model trains too, with their miniaturized perfection, their cool iron heft, their secret, steamy delight at being held in the hand. I never owned a model railway but I had friends who did, who allowed me to access their made-to-measure kingdoms of scaled down rails, of papier maché fortresses and moulded housing stock, who showed me how, if you pull the attic trapdoor firmly shut behind you once you’re inside, you can persuade yourself that you’ve entered another world.
The story I’ve written for Rustblind and Silverbright opens a window into just such a world. It also reveals the dangers that lie in closing that attic door too tightly, in forgetting that there is a world beyond it after all, that by being in thrall to one you run the risk of losing your place in the other.
Mainly though it’s a story about magic, because trains are magic in motion. It’s a story about being haunted by rail.
Visit Nina’s blog at http://www.ninaallan.co.uk/