shining the spotlight on short story collections
Eibonvale Press, 2013
Reviewed by Pauline Masurel
“Life is a long wait for a train that never comes.”
There are twenty-four stories in this chunky book, which is billed as A Slipstream Anthology of Railway Stories. Many of the stories take liberties with reality, slipping effortlessly into fantastic worlds, but many of them are also quite strongly rooted in reality. This seems appropriate, given that railways are part of the edgelands, borderline places that divide landscapes. The book isn’t a cyberpunk, geek-fest of futuristic fiction but more of an insidious virus eating away at veracity. If ‘strangeness’ is the primary defining feature of slipstream literature then this collection has it by the carriage-load.
The collection has an imaginatively designed cover and a pleasingly scrapbooked feel to its overall construction. The title is a quotation from Railways by Day and by Night by Wolfgang Borchert, You are a railway – rumbled over, cried over – you are the track – on you everything happens and makes you rustblind and silverbright. There are interludes throughout the book, written by editor David Rix, featuring true tales from railways around the world and throughout history. These often seem even more fanciful than the fiction sandwiched between them. For some reason, the book is divided into three Acts, although I found myself puzzling why these weren’t described as ‘Lines’ to keep the railway theme a-rolling.
Railways and trains are integral to the stories in this book – their settings and ethos – and not just a vague coincidental hook upon which to hang the characters. The trains themselves are suitably varied, including those on Japanese high-speed lines, model railways and small-gauge novelty steam engines in parks. There are both rural and urban railways, underground and overground lines. Tunnels, level crossings and bridges act as atmospheric settings for stories of love, lost innocence, lust and death. This anthology even dares to print the unhallowed name of Beeching, he of the cuts to the British railway network in the 1960s.
Allen Ashley’s On The Level is an engaging coming-of-age story. It also has the added bonus of containing a great discography of train songs. The opening sets up an immediate warning of menace with its nonchalant ordinariness. The railway might be a metaphor for life itself:
‘As a boy, I always loved level crossings. I was never scared on them. I used to look both ways – up the line and down the line, you might say. I never saw anything coming. You never do.’
In Vivian Guppy and the Brighton Belle, by Nina Allan, the narrator’s aunt is killed by a train, although it’s not one of the full-sized variety. This is a story almost on the scale of a mini-novella, which draws you in with its conversational, confessional style. The Path of Garden Forks by Rhys Hughes is as entertaining as his biography. It’s a gloriously surreal, self-referential joy ride that threatens to derail itself towards the end but the author manages to drive it on to a ridiculously comic conclusion. Other stories in the collection successfully mix a certain darkness with humour. Tube stations can be strange, anonymous places and R.D. Hodkinson’s Wi-Fi Enabled Bakerloo Sunset sets out with a protagonist who is strange and anonymous even to himself.
Perhaps because railways so often slice straight through the geography of a place some of these stories, such as The Cuts by Danny Rhodes, allow trains to function as time machines. They offer characters a chance to see the future or past of a place. And just as one is becoming inured to the probability of something rather peculiar coming along, just because this is a story set on rails, Steve Rasnic Tem’s story Escape on a Train uses the fantasy and reality of observation from a train window as a powerful allegory for the world that we live in:
‘Carter stares at the man. Then he touches the hot glass, pulling it away before his fingers can burn. “Children are burning like cotton! Their faces melting like a cheap plastic doll’s!” The stranger puts his paper full of murder and mayhem aside. “That’s very unfortunate,” he says. “But we’re on the train, you see, moving past the town. The town remains still, an immobile location. It’s physically impossible for us to do anything to help those people.”’
Jet McDonald’s Engineered Soul is one of a number of stories that feature trains of the dead. It tells the story of Charles Monkface, Seer of the Railway, who suffers from ‘railway melancholia’. I spend my shillings on the pineal glands of cadavers. I know a harlot who knows a vagabond who knows a mortician. It descends finally into an underworld of poetry, making use of the litany of train destinations.
A few other pieces in this anthology also diverge from the conventional short story format. There’s Gavin Salisbury’s poem, Embankmen, and, very strikingly, S.J. Fowler’s Writers Block. The latter appears to be an insubstantial gathering of disconnects, but closer reading reveals an impressionistic description of the frustrations of failing to get underway. Ironically, the piece contains many more original opening lines within its brief pair of pages than some short story collections can muster in their totality.
This book may not be the ideal Christmas gift for a trainspotting old buffer (although it might be just the ticket if he or she has suitably open-minded, eclectic reading tastes). But I think it could induce at least a modest portion of train-appreciation in the most vehement rail-deniers. Reading this anthology I became convinced that every story should have a railway in it somewhere; it’s just that no one has realised this before. Try it out for yourself, but don’t forget to mind the gap.
Other railway stories (not included in this collection) by authors featured in the anthology:
En Saga by Nina Allan http://www.ninaallan.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/En-Saga.pdf
The Rule of Three by David McGroarty http://www.davidmcgroarty.net/index.php/2011/01/the-rule-of-three/
The Knowledge (extract) by Danny Rhodes: http://www.smashwords.com/extreader/read/91373/4/the-knowledge-and-other-stories
and Andrew Hook, writing about the inspiration for his story in this collection, Tetsudo Fan: http://andrew-hook.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/tetsudo-fan.html
About the reviewer: Pauline Masurel spent many years commuting on trains: reading and writing on them. She now travels on railways less frequently, but still regards them as a fine mode of transport. She once co-wrote an odd webpiece called This Train and is unreasonably proud of it, in all of its strangeness.