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An Appreciation of the Weird Fiction of L.T.C. Rolt

13 Jan

As we approach the centenary of his birth, the name L.T.C. Rolt is unlikely to ring many bells amongst the reading public. Yet for two small but distinct groups it surely ought to provoke an affectionate response; scholars of British industrial or transport history and more curiously, aficionados of weird fiction. It is a strange combination perhaps but one Rolt himself managed to unite in his single but highly acclaimed collection, Sleep No More, subtitled Railway, Canal & Other Stories of the Supernatural. This volume has remained out of print for some time although a reprint has been timed to coincide with the forthcoming anniversary, to be published not by specialist presses such as Tartarus or Ash Tree, nor the invaluable and more reasonably priced Wordsworth Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural range, but rather appropriately by the History Press, whose usual stock-in-trade is topographical non-fiction, including a great deal of industrial and transport history.

Rolt was a trained engineer and an enthusiast of all modes of transport. He was one of the first to own a narrow boat for pleasure, which took him the length and breadth of Britain’s canal network and we have him to thank for the preservation and ongoing recreational use of this system through his foundation of the Inland Waterways Association with the equally celebrated writer of weird fiction, Robert Aickman. Similarly, he restored and raced old cars, founding both the Vintage Sports Car Club and the Prescott Hill Climb, a famed motor racing course in Gloucestershire. Meanwhile, during the 1950s he managed the Talyllyn Railway in Wales and went on to write Red for Danger, a classic history of British railways, not to mention a still highly regarded biography of legendary civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. All passions which are reflected in his literature.

But unlike his friend Aickman, many of whose stories are really quite radical and unique, Rolt’s supernatural fiction is often placed within the Jamesian tradition. At first, this might seem somewhat incongruous as Rolt’s industrial background could not be more at odds with the fusty antiquarianism and anti-materialism of M.R. James. However, Rolt was a noted admirer of James’s work nonetheless and in some places, the comparison is very obvious indeed. There are a couple of stories in Sleep No More which deliberately emulate the style and milieu of the Jamesian ghost story, principally A Visitor at Ashcombe which tells the story of an uncanny mirror in a Tudor mansion house, and Music Hath Charms, which also resembles J. Meade Falkner’s The Last Stradivarius in miniature. Yet whilst both are finely crafted works in their own right, they are amongst the least interesting pieces in the book.

There is a far more instructive respect in which Rolt can be called an acolyte of James and that is in the way he employs Monty’s philosophy for the ghost story in a distinct yet equally authentically realised context, thereby being both true to the spirit of the tradition and revitalising it at the same time. As Mike Ashley argues in an article entitled Shadows of the Master for Ghost and Scholars, “Of the handful of imitators, Malden, Munby and Rolt achieve the most success in blending James’s techniques with their own narratives… Because of his ability to utitlise original surroundings, L.T.C. Rolt’s stories are perhaps the most refreshing.” James was always determined that for greatest effect, the supernatural eruption should take place in familiar surroundings but what too many of his disciples forget is that for James and his original audience, the antiquarian environment was familiar and it was precisely that familiarity which lent his writing its force, whereas in the hands of others it’s employed more as a self-conscious affectation. Rolt succeeds because the industrial setting he evokes is one about which he is passionate and knowledgeable.

To anybody who lives amidst relics of the Industrial Revolution, the surroundings depicted in a number of Rolt’s tales should be very recognisable indeed and little evokes a sense of desolation and existential dread quite as effectively as decaying industrial architecture. It is something Susan Hill recognises when she writes, “No one has as well succeeded in capturing the air of dankness and dreariness of lonely canals on gloomy, misty late afternoons in winter.” Indeed, one of the finest stories in Sleep No More, Bosworth Summit Pound, concerns a canal tunnel and one wonders if it was partly inspired by Rolt’s own experiences the previous year navigating the derelict Standedge Tunnel, both the longest and deepest example in Britain, with Aickman and Aickman’s then paramour Elizabeth Jane Howard (who would also write a classic weird tale involving a canal, Three Miles Up).

We are also treated to ghostly incursions against the backdrop of old lead workings in The Mine, an iron plant in Hawley Bank Foundry, a remote railway tunnel in The Garside Fell Disaster and a motor racing course in New Corner, all locations which Rolt would understand intimately. He uses his insight to conjure an atmosphere every bit as rich and detailed as that of James’s dusty libraries and ecclesiastic monuments. However, one interesting concession Rolt does make to James’s more antiquarian concerns comes in the denouements to the latter two stories mentioned, in which the manifestations are the consequence of disturbing ancient holy sites, recalling the triggers for events in A Warning to the Curious or The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral. For all his affection for the industrial landscape, Rolt understands that it is impotent in the face of encroaching nature and it is often our trespasses against older, incomprehensible forces which bring disaster down upon us.

A further respect in which Rolt follows the template laid down by James is the sheer, uncompromising malignancy of the supernatural agency. In his preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, James insisted, “The ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story.” The apparitions in Sleep No More certainly fulfil these criteria, such as the subterranean demon disturbed in The Mine, “a human shape… terrible tall and thin, and it seemed to be a kind of dirty white all over, like summat that’s grown up in the dark and never had no light” and most who encounter these revenants come to a sticky end. Rolt shares James’s economy of language in these moments of climax, knowing just what to describe and what merely to insinuate. The conclusion of Bosworth Summit Pound is especially masterful in this respect.

However, I think it is somewhat disingenuous to regard Rolt purely as a follower of James or purely as a writer of industrial ghost stories. Certainly some of his best works falls into both categories but his range even within the limited confines of a single volume is really quite impressive. Rolt was not immune to the pantheistic mysticism which characterised the works of Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, and a number of his stories reflect this. His particular fondness for the Black Mountains in Wales and particularly the Vale of Ewyas, site of the famed Llanthony Priory, informs The House of Vengeance and Cwm Garon. The latter is surely one of the best tales in the collection, ably communicating the mountain solitude throughout and culminating in a powerful intimation of atavistic dread as old gods waken and the protagonist comes to understand “There stalked through the valley something intangible, unearthly, monstrous and very terrible.”

The Shouting is another tale of which Machen in particular would be proud, combining an authentically folkloric feel with a disconcerting ambiguity, whilst Agony of Flame invokes a mysterious supernatural awe at a ruined castle on a lake in Ireland. Although Rolt’s more Jamesian stories tended to hint at origins for the hauntings, neither did he forget the value of ambiguity in the weird tale, perhaps mindful of a quote Robert Aickman once borrowed from Sacheverell Sitwell: “In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation.” Yet despite all these influences, Rolt retains his own voice. Certainly the most defining characteristic of his work remains the industrial environment into which he introduces his spectres, something which was still uncommon when Sleep No More was published in 1948, but he is no less convincing when exploring more natural landscapes and the reason you suspect his stories are so successful is because like all the best creators of weird fiction, he possessed an authentic vision. For him the weird tale was not just a literary exercise, but fundamentally an extension and communication of his world view and passions.

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