Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Ghost Now Standing on Platform One

The Ghost Now Standing on Platform One, edited by Richard Peyton, attempts to combine fact and fiction in offering us a survey of supernatural happenings on the railways. Peyton gives us twenty-one ghost stories by a variety of authors, each story being prefaced by a brief account of a “real-life” railway haunting.

It’s a basically sound idea and it works quite well in practice. The stories include a couple of the usual suspects that you’d expect to find in such an anthology (such as Charles Dickens’ The Signal-Man) but generally speaking Peyton has done a fine job of ignoring the obvious and seeking out lesser known or even quite obscure tales. As in any anthology  there’s a variation in quality but on the whole this is a collection of very high quality and considerable interest.

All of the fictional pieces have at least some connection with railways and Peyton has wisely steered clear of stories with only a tenuous link to his chosen subject matter. Unfortunately no dates are given for most of the stories but Peyton has shown a very astute preference for earlier stories. We are mercifully spared the misery of slogging through a large number of tedious and pretentious modern stories.

There are of course a few complete misses - the less said about Richard Hughes’ totally pointless Locomotive and John Newton Chance’s dismal The Mourning Train the better.

These occasional lapses are more than compensated for by some real treasures by almost forgotten authors. Sir Andrew Caldicott’s Branch Line to Benceston is a clever blending of science fiction and horror. Its connection with railways is perhaps not as strong as is the case with most of the other stories but it’s an intriguing tale nonetheless.

Arnold Ridley is remembered with fondness for his portrayal of Private Godfrey in the long-running Dad’s Army TV series. Ridley was a successful writer as well as an actor and his Journey Into Fear is a conventional but wonderfully atmospheric tale. Robert Aickman had a reputation for being one of the most subtle of all horror writers. In my view his only weakness is that on occasion his stories are too subtle and fail to provide a satisfying payoff but that is an accusation that certainly cannot be leveled at his superb The Waiting Room.

Peter Fleming was the brother of Ian Fleming. His story The Kill is more of a full-blooded horror story than a ghost story and it has little to do with railways. It’s not particularly subtle but fans of werewolf stories will enjoy it.

John Wyndham was one of the finest British science fiction writers of the 20th century. His Confidence Trick is an unconventional exercise in what might be called existentialist black comedy. This is a literal journey to Hell, and Hell will never be the same again after the arrival of this particular trainload of new arrivals.

L .T. C. Rolt’s The Garside Fell Disaster is a very traditional railway ghost story that works well enough.

August Derleth was renowned as an editor as well as a horror writer and he also had a passion for regional tales based on local folklore. He provides two stories, one written under the pseudonym Stephen Grendon. The Night Train to Lost Valley is nicely atmospheric if a trifle obvious. Pacific 421, published under his real name, is one of the highlights of this anthology. A truly great ghost story should take the traditional ingredients of the ghost story and do something unexpected with them, and I think it’s fair to say that this one qualifies as a great ghost story. It has a very nasty little ironic sting in the tail.

Ray Bradbury needs no introduction to horror fans and The Town Where No One Got Off is typical of Bradbury at his best, and avoids the pitfalls of Bradbury at his worst.

This anthology includes several tales about railway lines that do not go where they should and stations that do not exist. The best of them is A. M. Burrage’s The Wrong Station, a lovely tale of melancholic horror. Burrage’s reputation has grown steadily over the years but unfortunately his work is exceptionally difficult to get hold of so the inclusion of this story is very welcome indeed.

J. D. Beresford’s Lost in the Fog is, alas, a rather complete failure, clumsy and obvious.

Algernon Blackwood was a master of the ghost story. Miss Slumbubble - and Claustrophobia manages to build terror, and do so very successfully, out of nothing at all.

The last thing you’d expect to come across is a ghost story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A Short Trip Home is however most definitely a ghost story, and a very good one. It’s a Jazz Age ghost story and it’s both subtle and chilling.

William F. Nolan’s Lonely Train A' Comin' is the final story in the book and Peyton gives it an enthusiastic build-up. It’s by far the most modern-feeling of the stories featured here an unfortunately it’s close to being the worst. It’s the only story that relies on gore and it’s a remarkably clumsy effort. In content it has something in common with the Fitzgerald story that precedes it but Nolan’s clumsy bludgeoning effort makes a sad contrast with Fitzgerald’s subtle chills.

The “real-life” ghostly railway tales with stretch the reader’s credibility more than the fictional contributions but they do certainly add some additional flavour and they demonstrate that people who love trains seem to have a very notable interest in the supernatural.

Overall this is really a very strong anthology, with far more hits than misses and the stories that hit the target frequently do so with remarkable efffect. If you are a fan of ghost stories then it’s a very worthwhile purchase. If you love trains as well then it becomes pretty much a must-buy volume. It’s out of print but used copies are plentiful and cheap. Definitely recommended.

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