Tuesday, September 30, 2014

SLEEP NO MORE by L. T. C. Rolt

L. T. C. Rolt (1910-1974) is one of those lesser-known writers you wish more people knew about. His ghost stories were a minor part of his literary output; his efforts were mostly spent in writing about waterways, railroads, cars, biographies of civil engineers, industrial history, and travel, and he was a promoter of leisure cruising in Britain's inland waterways. According to some he was also notable early on for his "green" philosophy. He seems like he was quite a guy.

Sleep No More (published 1948) is interesting as many of the stories eschew the usual manor houses and crumbling churches of M. R. James and his school, but embracing Britain's industrial and transit landscape, which makes him a somewhat different voice in the field of English ghost stories.

So, to give you an overview...

"The Mine" tells of subterranean horrors in a lead mine; brief, but with a punch. "The Cat Returns" is lacking punch, being a fairly standard tale of ghostly appearances with a final "surprise." "Bosworth Summit Pound" has a haunting on a ghostly stretch of canal.

"New Corner" is interesting in that it's a ghost story built around auto racing, with a strange series of accidents happening at a newly-developed turning in a racecourse. "Cwm Garon" is the longest tale of the bunch, the most literary, and the most abstract...but at the same time, fascinating. A man visits an isolated Welsh valley and becomes entranced by its beauty, but also feels a sneaking suspicion of some lurking evil in the landscape. It's a great example of the subgenre of "landscape horror" where it's not really an evil house or specific structure, but the land itself that radiates menace.

"A Visitor at Ashcombe" is probably the most Jamesian of the stories, with a nasty haunting in a rural manor house, purchased by a nouveau riche industrialist. "The Garside Fell Disaster" is a cracker, with a railroad accident and hints of an ancient evil in an isolated train tunnel. "World's End" is a brief tale of premonition and death.

"Hear Not My Steps" is extremely brief, a tale of a haunting, but also seems too brief, as if it's an unfinished fragment thrown in to fill out the collection. Or perhaps it's an experiment in the form. This is more horror fiction than ghost story, really. "Agony of Flame" is a tale of a haunting in an Irish castle, but is very interesting for being very traditionally Jamesian in content but also kicking off with a reference to the atom bomb and Bikini Atoll, setting the tale squarely in a post-WWII world.

"Hawley Bank Foundry" is probably the best example of Rolt's style and fascinations, as it deals with hauntings and unholy things in an old foundry re-opened for war work, and is in the halfway mark of the shift from the pre-war "antiquarian" school of ghost story and the post-war "visionary" school of ghost and horror fiction.

"Music Hath Charms" is also an excellent story that tweaks the form. It's got an old house and antiquarian content, with an antique music box having connections with sorcery and possession, but the story structure is much more modern. "The Shouting" is more landscape horror, with ancient evil suffusing the very land itself. The final story, "The House of Vengeance," is well-done enough but a standard story of ghosts replaying a violent scene.

So there you have it. An interesting and fairly unusual voice in ghost fiction, and also in some ways a transitional figure as proper and civilized ghosts of the Victorian and Edwardian period gave way to the more abstract terrors of the postwar era. His deft touch with industrial settings and for landscape horror make this volume (his only supernatural work) a worthy addition to one's library. I wonder about his other works, but they may be hard to get hold of here in the U.S.; I'll have to see.

I read a nice paperback edition from The History Press, now out of print, but the lovely folks at Ash-Tree Press have a very reasonably priced ebook version available.

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