The railway phantoms and where they come from - Dennis Hamley

In  last month’s blog I reached a point where I was just about to launch into  a consideration of the Railway Ghost Story. There are so many of them that they almost constitute a separate genre. I’ve written two myself, both of them included in Out of the Deep, my supernatural anthology. And I’ve also written a novel in the old Hippo Ghost series from Scholastic. It was published in 1995 and, when it went out of print, I was fond enough of it to get the rights back and bring it out again on Print on Demand with Back-to-Front. The Railway Phantoms. A reviewer said that the main, entirely malignant, ghost was ‘A Heathcliff of the rails.’ I liked that!

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The Scholastic edition (1995). You can get it at Amazon for 1p.

It is set in Wuthering Heights country and the railway in the present day timescale is a disguised version of the preserved Keighley and Worth Valley Railway. Its 19th century manifestation was a fictional joint line of the London and North Western and the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railways. Not so far away is Blea Moor, on the Settle-Carlisle section of the old Midland Railway from Leeds, reputedly the most haunted of all stretches of railway, and I was always aware of it just up the road, accompanied by all the spirits of the navvies who died making it.

Someone - I forget who but it was a story I found years ago in an anthology and then lost  - wrote a ghost story set on those moors near that fearsome railway which had images which have stuck in my mind ever since.  I wish I could find it again. So if anyone can identify it from this description I'd be so grateful. It is set just after the end of the Second World War. Two women just out of the forces - I forget whether they were Waafs, Ats or Wrens, but that they have shared bad experiences is important - have gone to the moors on a walking holiday. They are caught in a dense fog and lose their bearings. But momentarily the fog clears and they find themselves by the railway watching a long freight train pass along the cutting below them, with trucks carrying what look oddly and alarmingly like coffins. The fog closes again and so they resolve to follow the railway. They come to a house by the the track and knock on the door.

Inside are a couple, whether husband and wife or brother and sister I forget. The women enter. Now ensues a story of trial, stress and captivity. The story's ending is not good for them. The new couple's actual reality is in question, though, as I remember, we are never quite sure if they are supernatural. I seem to remember that one is, the other is not. The atmosphere in the house is of sheer terror. And there is an unforgettable image running through the whole. Coal. Black, hard, intransigent - but never used as an object, more as a blind and malignant force.

My The Railway Phantoms was in no way a reworking of this lost story. But, it hovers somewhere in my mind as a series of quarter-remembered but still vivid images. And the male character really was, in stature and effect, a 'Heathcliff of the rails'.

The Railway Phantoms had exactly the sorts of review I had craved – ‘A powerful, atmospheric story, full of the sights, sounds and smells of steam railways’, said The School Librarian while the TES weighed in with ‘Dennis Hamley lovingly reconstructs the detailed life of his long-dead characters – the gritstone cottages and their red-mufflered inhabitants – with the clarity of imagination rather than the sentiment of the heritage industry.’

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Back-to-Front PoD (2005). Both images suffused by darkness and the sulphurous flames of hell. Just as I like them!

These reviews pleased me so much, because they describe exactly what I was striving for. The railway ghost story lives as much through its atmosphere as its supernatural possibilities, although the two are inextricable because railways are almost naturally ghostly, whether by night or day, whether in fog - as the two ex-servicewomen found out - or sunshine. Whether or not ghostly, to my mind the Railway remains the most important agent in the dawn of our age. No matter how arthritic a nineteenth-century steam engine may seem now, nevertheless it was the first harbinger of our modern hubris, the quantum leap from the limits of movement posed by the human or animal body, the biggest single step out of physical constraints of space and time since prehistoric humanity tamed the horse. I submit, therefore, that it has had a decisive effect on human psychology which has benefited writers ever since. And the first and possibly, in the long run, most decisive effect was on Charles Dickens, who hated and feared the things but who nevertheless wrote The Signalman, which has pretty well defined the genre ever since.

The Railway Phantoms has many features familiar to habitual ghost story readers. I make no apology for that fact. It begins with a recurring dream of hypnotic reality and tragic events, retelling the past, implying the future. The girl who keeps dreaming it has to go on holiday with her father as part of the custody arrangements. He is a fanatical railway buff and a volunteer on a preserved railway. 'My father looks an absolute prat,' thinks Rachel as she sees him in his ticket-collector's uniform. But when she gets to the railway she finds she recognises parts of it. She hears trains at night when no trains run, she finds her dream matches accounts of a railway disaster over a century before, that her father is somehow connected with it down the generations, a mysterious connection which obsesses him and caused his separation from her mother. And Rachel penetrates this tragedy, finds herself personally involved in its nightmare and realises the long revenge which is still being played out.

The School Librarian reviewer said that most of this was managed by 'a shameless literary device'. Dead right. I make no apology for it. In fact, I'm proud of it, I tell you. Yes, proud.

The Signalman is the brilliant precursor of all the themes here - as it is for so many ghost stories, whether or not about railways. The structure is simple. The narrator, an 'everyman' figure, blunders unknowingly into the scene and becomes the interlocutor of a haunted, frightened man who gives his testimony of inexplicable supernatural warnings of a future disaster which cannot be prevented and which in the end kills him. Some time before this, Dickens had been a passenger in the Clayton Tunnel rail crash of 1861. The horror of this, in a world not yet used to such trauma, affected him deeply. And, in The Signalman, it shows.

Image result for images for Charles Dickens's The Signalman.

The frightened signalman

The deep cutting where it is always cold, damp and dark, the red lamp and the tunnel mouth, the image of a man shielding his eyes, the cry of  'Clear the way,' are all potent images which prey on the signalman's mind. And here is a strange thing - Dickens, so early in the history of the modern ghost story, has lighted on a significant feature which is curiously underused. 

We are used to thinking of ghosts as emanations of the past.  In their foreword to the Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories, Michael Cox and RW Gilbert define ghosts as 'the returning dead . . . traditionally at home in mists and shadows . . .' Ghosts of the future are much rarer. But this ghost is a perfect example of a doppelganger, a 'fetch', someone who is living and breathing somewhere else as the signalman tells his story. And when the interlocutor recognises him, we have a satisfying as well as a terrifying epiphany, because it seals a perfect construct of the supernatural..

Image result for images for Charles Dickens's The Signalman.

The deep cutting, the signal box and the fatal tunnel mouth

I've sometimes used the notion of the 'fetch' from the future in my own stories, especially The Overbalancing Man, included in Out of the Deep, which I found very satisfying to write. And that too is, inevitably, a railway ghost. The ideas of premonition, of disaster and uncontrollable force and destiny have suffused railways since their first inception, which makes them perfect vehicles for speculation as well as excitement.

Earlier, I said railways were ' a quantum leap.' There's another aspect to this which I've often thought about but I don't know of anyone-else who has. The backers of  the Liverpool and Manchester Railway set up a competition to select the best engines - the Rainhill trials. One of the rules they laid down was that all engines should consume their own smoke.  None of the entries could, so the organisers decided that getting the engines to run was more important than stopping them polluting the atmosphere. Rather than disqualify the lot, they quietly forgot the rule.

Think of it. If they had insisted on it in 1831, the idea that machines burning fossil fuels should not pollute would, over nearly two hundred years, have become second nature - the first requirement for every designer since, no matter what fuel was used. Just reflect on what that would have saved us from.

So it's not all good. We sometimes have to revile railways as well as love them.

I've often though about reissuing The Railway Phantoms but I don' t have it on a computer (I never did!) and a printed copy would have to be scanned properly. Way beyond me. And, as I've already found, practitioners are hard to find. Or could it be professionally typed? Well, of course. But that costs a bomb!

Next time - railways I have loved.


Jan Needle said…
Fine piece, Dennis - thanks. I'm pretty sure you'll be interested in mine tomorrow, if only for the coincidentionality (now there's a word!) Railways can be used for real, or realish, events as well as ghostly ones. They're fascinating and lovely things. Incidentally, rather than coincidentally, I'll ask my son Matti about scanning for you. I suspect it won't cost you an arm and a leg at all.
Bill Kirton said…
Great glimpses of the workings of a genre I've always enjoyed (and admired) but never attempted. Your mentions of 'fetches' and other 'habitual features' whet my appetite for the comprehensive blog you'll write some time to lay bare the mysteries I need to understand in order to have a go.
Mari Biella said…
I really enjoyed this post, Dennis. I've read (and loved) some of your railway ghost stories, and I agree - the railway has a kind of spiritual significance that is often overlooked in these days when distance implies distance crossed. It's no great surprise that the railways should be haunted, at least in fiction. An easy thing to say but, having attempted - and failed at - my own railway-themed ghost story, I can confirm that it's very hard to do.
Susan Price said…
Dennis, you can get a combined printer-scanner-photo-coier for forty quid - see here:

Connect it to your printer, download a free Optical Character Recognition programme (OCR)and you could easily scan as many of your stories into your computer as you like. In the comfort of your own home.
Lydia Bennet said…
Well said Susan! very useful info. Dennis, I've enjoyed and reviewed your ghost stories, I do agree there's something about railways - of course they share the emotions of meetings and partings at stations that airports do nowadays, but also encounters with strangers in confined spaces, so perhaps people feel both stimulated and a bit tense when thinking of train travel (though with Virgin cross country it's more of a horror story). I'm not sure they could have swallowed the smoke though, and we'd just not have had railways and all they brought with them. if it was that easy to filter out the black stuff they could have been doing that afterwards more effectively. Though I've not considered the technology for that before. I wrote some plays for the Darlington railway museum, about Geordie Stephenson and the coming of the railways. One thing that stuck in my mind is that railways took some strange turns and routes and it was because posh people didn't want the public schools disturbed by engine noises while they were concentrating on beating their fags. Similarly the London underground zigs and zags because posh people didn't want it near their mansions' cellars. Very democratic things, railways.
Ann Evans said…
Excellent post, Dennis, and I do hope you get to re-release 'The Railway Phantoms', sounds brilliant. I had one of my early Scholastic Hippo books re-issued by Back-to-Front. I wish they were still around. Another one I re-typed to bring out as an ebook. A bit of a slog, but it allowed me to change one or two bits and bring it up to date, so worthwhile. Great to see you at the Kids Lit Quiz last week. :)
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Love this post, Dennis - and wish you would reissue the Railway Phantoms. I love ghost stories and railways. The Signalman is one of my favourites. Dickens wrote some cracking ghost stories - just doing my annual reread of A Christmas Carol and thinking about how good he was.
Dennis Hamley said…
Thank you all. Because of the usual wifi difficulties in NZ I'm only just reading these comments - and grappling with my unloved virtual keyboard. The R Phs is still on Amazon at 1p and I have one or two PoDs left, though for more than 1p. I do now intend to bring it out in Joslin Books, which I'm reserving for kids' books and thinking about going to Martin West to see if he would handle better quality p/bs in his own distribution set-up keeping the amazon/Createspace operation separate. Sue, thanks for OCR tip. I have such a printer already but never dreamed I could use it for such sophisticated things. Even so, I'ĺl remember Matti if it all blows up in my face, Jan. Your post on the 15th, which I loved, was indeed quite serendipity. The wife of a friend of mine once bought a day's engine driving course on the Great Central and expected a shunting engine but got Sir Nigel Gresley, sister as it were to Mallard. He was so overcome that he learned notning but how to work the chime whistle, which he did all day. Reb, I'm now about to tell you about the LMS unless someone has got there first.
Dennis Hamley said…
Me again. Bill, it's all in my ' Out of the Deep' in my comments on each story. Kindle and Createspace.
Unknown said…
This is incredible, I've been searching for this book!! I first read it a good 20 years ago from my primary school library and it's stuck with me after all these years. Although I can't remember the exact story it left a strong impression - I clearly remember a haunting yet poignant ending. So a while back I decided to look for it online but I couldn't for the life of me remember the title, except that it contained 'railway'. So happy to have found it and can't wait to read it again :)
TB3 said…
Hi Dennis

I know full well the difficulty of tracking down a book or story one read years ago. You're in luck however as the tale you're looking for sounds to me like a dead ringer for 'The Trains' by Robert Aickman - a digital scan of an anthology in which it is included can be found at this link.

Hope this is indeed what you were looking for! It matches in every way your remembered account, though for some reason I tend to associate it more with the Woodhead Line than the Settle and Carlisle.*

I first read 'The Railway Phantoms' way back in 1998 when I stumbled across a copy in the Young Adult section of my local library, and I remember clearly my being engrossed by it, curled up in an armchair while my siblings watched the VHS sequel to the Lion King on TV. Today I'm proud to say I own my own copy of the Hippo Ghost edition, which is actually sitting on the desk next to me as I type. David Wyatt's cover art really is captivating, a beautifully sinister composition of flame and smoke around the black mass of that elegant L&Y express engine.

As a lover of railways and ghost stories alike, I consider 'The Railway Phantoms' to be a real triumph, and that comment describing Stationmaster Henshaw as a Heathcliff of the rails is right on the money - you created a wonderfully monstrous antagonist, a fierce and primal force whose animalistic fury is barely disguised by the formal trappings of a Victorian stationmaster. Bravo!

Stylistically, the way you captured the setting and mood of Scarhead, its railway and its people, conveying precise detail but without getting bogged down in flowerly language, is a lesson to any aspiring writer. I'm actually working on a railway ghost story of my own, so thanks muchly for helping to inspire me along the way!

* A railway ghost story definately associated with the Settle & Carlisle's formidable road over the Pennine Mountains is LTC Rolt's 'The Garside Fell Disaster', a short story set around a remote length of railway that is clearly based upon Blea Moor. I read it when I was barely ten, and Rolt's tale touched such a chord with me that last year I knocked up a not-for-profit audio adaptation in hopes of drawing more attention to his ghost stories.

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