Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

The rise of the classic Ghost Story and the construction of the first railroad networks came at about the same time in the UK, during the first half of the 19th century; and 20th-century readers of Supernatural Fiction may be forgiven the assumption that trains were from the first natural settings for stories featuring Revenants or messengers bearing ill tidings. But this was not the case. For the first several decades trains were more likely to serve as emblems of the thrust of the future, and to feature in sf tales.

It was not until a generation had passed that the train began to become embedded into the "natural" world; the first significant story in which the supernatural has an effect upon the train – after "The Last Stage Coachman" (1843) by Wilkie Collins and "The 9:30 Up-Train" (1853) by S Baring-Gould – is probably Charles Dickens's "No. l Branch Line. The Signalman", in Mugby Junction: The Extra Christmas Number of All the Year Round (anth 1866 chap), a Christmas Book which also includes "No. 5 Branch Line: The Engineer" by Amelia B Edwards (1831-1892), in which a ghost prevents a train-wreck, thwarting a revenge. Edwards and Dickens collaborated the following year on another train-connected ghost story, "The Four-Fifteen Express" (1867); this, and almost all subsequent supernatural fiction set in trains or on railroads, tends to treat the train as a venue for the invasion or visitation of something prior, almost invariably a ghost. Several examples appear in The Ghost Now Standing on Platform One (anth 1990) ed Peter Haining (as Richard Peyton). Others are: the anonymous "The Parlor-Car Ghost" (1904), printed in various versions; Algernon Blackwood's "Miss Slumbubble – and Claustrophobia" (1907); Bernard Capes's "The Dark Compartment" (1915); "A Short Trip Home" (1927) by F Scott Fitzgerald; "The Railway Carriage" (1931) by F Tennyson Jesse (1889-1958); "A Journey by Train" (1935) by Henry L Lawrence (1908-1990); and the second multi-episode "Adventure" in the tv series Sapphire and Steel, in which a train station is haunted by soldiers killed in World War I.

Fantasy stories set on trains, on the other hand, generally involve a voyage of some sort, and often treat the train as a method of transit between one world and another. Sometimes – as in Robert Bloch's "That Hell-Bound Train" (1958) – the train itself is both the method of travel and (as it were) the destination; sometimes – as in "Lost in the Fog" (1919) by J D Beresford (1873-1947), A M Burrage's "The Wrong Station" (1927) and "Branch Line to Benceston" (1947) by Andrew Caldecott (1884-1951) – the train conveys its passenger through some sort of Portal into the otherworld: in the first instance, on the other side can be found a microcosm of Europe afflicted by WWI; in the second, it is a Posthumous-Fantasy venue; in the third, an Alternate World. Less explicitly, trains are frequently used to carry protagonists from familiar places to unknown regions, whether or not they are explicit Otherworlds: the protagonist of Herbert Rosendorfer's The Architect of Ruins (1969) begins his descent into the Underworld only after escaping from a surreal train voyage. Magical journeys (often in the middle of the night) also occur in Helen Cresswell's The Night-Watchmen (1969), Peter Collington's The Midnight Circus (graph 1992) and Escardy Gap (1996) by Peter Crowther and James Lovegrove (1965-    ).

As the 20th century progressed, it became more and more likely that trains would come to represent a lost world of the past, and that fantasies incorporating travel by train would evoke such venues. The most famous of these tales is probably Jack Finney's "The Third Level" (1952), whose narrator discovers a third level beneath Grand Central Station in New York City; this level exists in 1894, where he longs to go. Rod Serling's "A Stop at Willoughby" (The Twilight Zone 1960) exploits a similar nostalgia, and Joan Aiken's The Cockatrice Boys (in Christmas Forever anth 1993 ed David G Hartwell; exp 1996 US) uses its train setting as a solacing contrast to a monster-ridden contemporary England. In Richard Kennedy's The Boxcar at the Center of the Universe (1982 chap) a hobo tells of his search for the heart of the Universe, and in William Kotzwinkle's "Boxcar Blues" (1989) hoboes escape Death by hopping freights into Alternate Realities.

Trains (specifically engines) which are themselves animate are not common in adult fiction, a relatively rare example being Rudyard Kipling's ".007" (1897). They are very commonly found in stories for younger children, where Little Engines That Could unceasingly proliferate. [JC]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.