Friday, November 11, 2011

Blood and Iron: Robert Aickman's "The Trains"

This is the first in what will, I hope, be a series of in-depth essays on individual stories by Aickman, in the hope of diminishing the unwarranted air of utter impenetrability that surrounds them. Disagreements, amplifications, alternate theories, and other additions are strongly encouraged. Use the comment form at the bottom of the post.

Robert Aickman's career as a writer of what he called "strange stories" began in 1951 with the joint collection We Are for the Dark, containing three stories by Aickman and three by his then-lover Elizabeth Jane Howard. Coming second in the table of contents, Aickman's "The Trains" was his first story in that collection, and therefore (though we cannot to my knowledge ascertain the order of composition) in some sense his first published work. (It was eventually reprinted as the penultimate story in his final, posthumous collection Night Voices, and thus comes close to bookending his career.) Perhaps fittingly for a writer whose stories would often be seen as constituting a modern variation on the classical ghost story, "The Trains" combines narrative elements from traditional horror stories with the psychological focus, fear of modernity, and surreal opacity that are common to Aickman's fiction.

An Old House With a New Twist

Certain aspects of the plot of "The Trains" would not be out of place in a campfire yarn. The travelers, the sudden storm, the isolated house, the eccentric inhabitants, the dimly-seen figure on the stairs, and Margaret's final vision of the hanged Miss Roper, described in terms that are for Aickman unusually explicit (and I think chilling, though less so outside the context of the story):
Then Margaret became aware of something very horrible indeed: it began with the upturned dead face of an old woman, colourless with the exact colourlessness of the colourless light; and it ended with the old woman's crumpled shape occultly made visible hanging above the trap-door in the corner of Margaret's compartment-shaped room. Up in the attic old Miss Roper had hanged herself, her gray hair so twisted and meshed as itself to suggest the suffocating agent.
Such similarity to the popular idea of the ghost story is uncommon though not unique in the Aickman canon. But for all that "The Trains" is recognizable as a ghost story in the way that something like "Into the Wood" or "The Hospice" is not, it has features that are, from the perspective of tradition, baffling. The ambiguity over whether Margaret's vision of Miss Roper is "real" or internal is the least of these.

The description in the above passage of Margaret's room as "compartment-shaped" is part of a pattern in which the old house Margaret and her traveling companion Mimi take shelter at is described not in terms of an "old dark house" in the Gothic sense but of a train or some other feature of the railways. This begins with the doorbell.  "'It's a curious bell,' said Margaret, examining the mechanism and valiant to the soaking, shivering end. 'It's like the handles you see in signal boxes.'" (Signal boxes are, as some readers may not know, the points along a rail system by which the movements of trains are controlled. The handles would shift the rails and other equipment so that trains moved in the correct direction.) Later railway-influenced descriptions of the house introduce a note not only of oddness but also of distaste. The first floor of the house (in British usage; the second floor to Americans) has "several large doors, such as admit to the bedrooms of a railway hotel, but no furniture... nor were the staircase or either landing carpeted," an unappealing sparseness. The comparison to a "railway hotel door" is later repeated.

Images of railroads as well as railroad-influenced design begin to appear. The dining room contains engravings of the railway construction done by the house's builder, and a clock that "clicked like a revolving turnstile," though the association of turnstiles with mass transit may be too recent for Aickman to have meant this as a railway allusion. The drawing room, which is like the dining room described as "bleak," has more railway items, including "scale models of long-extinct locomotives" and "a vast print of a railway accident, freely coloured by hand." Margaret later realizes something about her room, whose barred windows had disturbed her: "the room suddenly struck Margaret as having the proportions of a railway compartment, a resemblance much increased by the odd arrangement of the windows, one at each end. Old-fashioned railway carriage windows were commonly barred, Margaret was just old enough to have noticed." At dinner Margaret comments on these "railways influences about the house," and eventually, finally invited into a room she regards as normal and inviting, Margaret thinks that "the railway blight" is totally absent.

Of course, it is not simply that the house happens to invite various railway associations; it is located directly next to the tracks of the railway the house's builder constructed, and on which he died in what may have been an odd accident or a suicide. The passage of trains is a constant, disconcerting undercurrent during events in the house: when first noticed it is "a sudden rumbling crescendo, which made the massive floorboards vibrate and the light bed leap up and down upon them. Even the big black stones of the walls seemed slightly to jostle." It punctuates the meal-- "At intervals through dinner, passing trains rattled the heavy table and heavy objects upon it"-- and continues late into the night. It is little surprise that Wendley Roper, grandson of the builder, once worked in the railway business like the rest of the family, and even having gotten free continues to research and publish books on the history of railways, under an ironic pseudonym, Howard Bullhead, that is itself a railway reference. (For the curious, "bullhead" refers to a particular type of rail design, based on its cross-sectional shape, and fishplates, the subject of Roper's book, are the pieces of metal that link the rails at either end.) His conversation with Mimi as they drink coffee in the drawing room uses trains as an existential metaphor: a branch line, a dead end, getting off the rails. It is little wonder that he should say, "I can't get it altogether out of my blood... The family motto might be the same as Bismarck's: Blood and Iron."

Why, from a literary perspective, all this focus on trains? To answer that question fully we must step back and look at the opening section of the story, before Wendley Roper and his railway-blighted house have even appeared.

"It's Not Nice Country"

Before the storm that traps them at Roper's house, Margaret and Mimi pass from pleasant countryside into a bare, deserted valley. "They noticed no traffic on the road, which, when reached, proved to be surfaced with hard, irregular granite chips, somewhat in need of re-laying and the attentions of a steam-roller. 'Pretty grim,' said Mimi." The first building they visit is an abandoned wreck, the second a barely used and unlicensed Guest House. "'Not much traffic,' said Margaret... 'They all go by train' [said Mimi]." Met in the Guest House with taciturn service, Margaret learns from a local man that the area is called the Quiet Valley and that indeed "the locals don't come here... They all take the railroad. They scuttle through shut up like steers in a wagon."

After leaving the Guest House, Margaret and Mimi have a close encounter with one of those trains.
As they stood uncertain, the sound of an ascending train reached them against the wind, which, blowing strongly from the opposite direction, kept the smoke within the walls of the cutting. So high was the adverse gale that it was only about a minute between their first hearing the slowly climbing train and its coming level with them. Steam roared from the exhaust. The fireman was stoking demoniacally.  As the engine passed to windward of the two women far above, and the noises from the exhaust crashed upon their senses, the driver suddenly looked up and waved with an apparent gaiety inappropriate to the horrible weather. Then he reached for the whistle lever and, as the train entered the tunnel, for forty seconds doubled the already unbearable uproar. It was a long tunnel... A nimbus of oily warm air enveloped [Margaret], almost immediately to be blown away, leaving her again shivering.
And later, as Margaret is in bed in Roper's house attempting to sleep:
Immediately she had groped into the pitch-dark bed, a train which seemed of an entirely new construction went past. This time there was no blasting of steam and thundering or grinding of wheels: only a single sustained rather high-pitched rattling; metallic, inhuman, hollow. The new train appeared to be ascending the bank, but Margaret for the first time could not be sure. The sound frightened Margaret badly. "It's a hospital train," her mother had said to her long ago on occasion of which Margaret had forgotten all details except that they were horrible. "It's full of wounded soldiers."
Out of all this one could construct a theory that for Aickman trains are an unpleasant and malevolent force. As he says in "An Essay," his remarks on winning the World Fantasy Award in 1976 for the short story "Pages from a Young Girl's Journal," Aickman believed that humanity had taken a "wrong turning" around the time of the Industrial Revolution, pursuing rationalism, science, and technology at the expense of our sense of the inexplicable, supernatural, and numinous. Trains, stark, loud, and polluting, seem an ideal symbol of that error, and the notion of a countryside deserted because people are taking trains past it rather than traveling through it-- a countryside where Miss Roper's frantic waving for help is ignored or misconstrued, and only the sight of blood has any hope of drawing attention from the mechanical passersby-- has obvious implications as a metaphor for indifference and isolation in a technological society. Up to a point such a reading is useful, but there are stumbling blocks.

In the first place, Aickman plainly did not dislike trains. He was (for a time) a close friend of railway enthusiast L. T. C. Rolt; both were founding members of the Inland Waterways Association, and Aickman apparently appreciated Rolt's ghost stories, some of which have railway settings and are not noticeably down on railways. And within the story itself there are signs that Aickman's point of view is not as crudely anti-industrial as a shallow interpretation of his philosophy might lead one to believe. As the story opens, Margaret and Mimi have just departed an industrial city, which Margaret has not at all disliked but Mimi has hated.
The city Margaret had found new, interesting, unexpectedly beautiful and romantic: its well-proportioned stone mills and volcanic chimneys appeared perfectly to consort with the high free mountains always in the background. To Mimi the place was all that she went on holiday to avoid. If you had to have towns, she would choose the blurred amalgam of the Midlands and South, where town does not contrast with country but merges into it, neither town nor country being at any time so distinct as in the North. To Margaret this, to her, new way of life (of which she saw only the very topmost surface), seemed considerably less dreadful than she had expected. Mimi, to whom also it was new, saw it as the existence from which very probably her great-grandfather had fought and climbed, a degradation she was appalled to find still in existence and able to devour her. If there had to be industry, let the facts be swaddled in suburbs.
Given that Margaret is the point-of-view character and generally seems to be more perceptive and stronger than Mimi (she notices earlier that there is something disturbing about Roper, and is the one to devise a solution to their predicament, a point to which we'll return; even the name "Mimi" suggests a trivial flightiness as compared to the solidity of "Margaret"), I would suggest that the perspective of the story is closer to Margaret's than to Mimi's: that the industrial, however regrettable its existence, is not incapable of beauty. In this context we might wish to consider a single sentence from Margaret and Mimi's encounter with the train that I tactically withheld via ellipses:
It was a long tunnel. The train was not of a kind Margaret was used to (she knew little of railways); it was composed neither of passenger coaches nor of small clattering trucks, but of long windowless vans, giving no hint of their contents. A nimbus of oily warm air enveloped [Margaret], almost immediately to be blown away, leaving her again shivering. (emphasis added)
Contrast this with the train Margaret hears (or imagines she hears) while in bed, which is "of an entirely new construction," and one begins to see that what Aickman finds sinister are not the trains of the early 20th century (with which he very probably grew up; those opposed to modernity do tend to give a pass to their own childhood associations) but the trains of the future, computerized, metallic, and impersonal and without the rustic (if polluting) charm of steam and the thundering of wheels.

But why, you might ask, is the house of the Ropers so grim and dangerous, if it is only the trains of the future that are such dark portents? One answer would focus on the fact that Margaret and Mimi are, as noted, largely ignorant of the industrial world; trains may have a certain charm from a distance, but living literally in their shadow is another matter. A second, somewhat richer answer provides a window into Aickman's aesthetics and the psychological aspects of the story.

Not on Solid Ground

In Aickman's worldview, as expressed in both stories and essays, strange and supernatural events are always impinging on the rationalist perception of normality, and it takes a concerted effort of mental will (of which a great many moderns are capable) to ignore this fact, to maintain the sense of order that defines a resolutely natural universe. Recall that the passing trains rattle the heavy dinner table and the heavy plates upon it, even seeming to jostle the walls themselves. What better metaphor for the effect of the paranormal upon staid sensibilities? Then there is the exchange between Margaret and Roper on the late-night movement of trains, of which Margaret had been ignorant.
"I see you're not used to living by a railway," said Roper. "Many classes of traffic are kept off the tracks during ordinary travelling hours. What you hear going by now are the loads you don't see when the stations are open. A railway is like an iceberg, you know: very little of its working is visible to the casual onlooker."...

"But surely only the passenger trains have time tables?"

"My dear Margaret, every single train is in a time-table. Every local goods, every light engine movement. Only not, of course, in the timetable you buy for sixpence at the Enquiry Office. Only a small fraction of all the train movements are in that. Even the man behind the counter knows virtually nothing of the rest."

"Only Wendley knows the whole works," said Mimi from the sofa.
There are more trains in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Trains, then, are like many mystical things in that they bring greater knowledge, but also greater danger, as suggested by the fates of Joseph Roper, Miss Roper, and Beech, by the probable fate of the insane Wendley Roper, and by the narrowly averted fates of Margaret and Mimi. This is a common theme in Aickman's stories, where characters often receive disturbing yet life-altering revelations.

It is in this light that Margaret's psychological development in the story is best examined. She is, as the story begins, a novice at hiking, deferring to Mimi's wisdom much of the time. Their rather uncertain friendship, tracked in seemingly innocuous exchanges with Aickman's usual subtlety and acuity, is particularly strained by Mimi's flirtation with Wendley Roper. Margaret's frustration leads to an epiphany:
Suddenly, looking at Mimi sprawling in her trousers and tight high-necked sweater, Margaret saw the point, clearer than in any book: Mimi was physically attractive; she herself in all probability was not. And nothing else in all life, in all the world, really counted. Nothing, nothing. Being cleverer; on the whole (as she thought) kinder; being more refined; the daughter of a Lord: such things were the dust beneath Mimi's chariot wheels, items in the list of life's innumerable unwantable impedimenta.
Taken by itself, this could be critiqued as rather patronizing male sympathy for an unattractive woman, with more than a hint of class condescension worked in. But as the story evolves, it becomes obvious that there are in fact things beyond attractiveness that "really count." Mimi's attractiveness has brought down on her the baleful attentions of Wendley Roper, and also of the man in the Guest House, with whom Roper is linked by the "inverted echo" of his words, itself explicitly paralleled to the verbal echo by which Margaret begins to realize that Beech is a woman. Recall also Margaret's observation that the man in the Guest House is "one of the many men who classify women into those you talk to and those with whom words merely impede the way."  Mimi's lack of cleverness has also left her unable to see that Roper is quite dangerous. Margaret's cleverness, on the other hand, allows her to recall the existence of Mimi's knife and use it to save herself from Beech, which in turn helps her protect Mimi from Roper's attentions, though not before Mimi has had whatever disturbing experience the train tickets shoved into her pockets are meant to suggest.

The conclusion of the story, with the tickets, the revelation of Beech's cross-dressing, and the abrupt ending so common in Aickman, has a mysterious and surreal quality that is equally common in Aickman, but each of these elements has its logic. The tickets, whatever one thinks of them aesthetically-- personally I find them too absurd to be unsettling, if to unsettle was the intention-- are an extension of "the railway blight," its invasion of the person of the visitor. It may be trite to point out that pockets are yonic, but with Aickman one never feels that the sexual is very far away. Beech's cross-dressing is a consequence of the love that has also trapped her with Wendley Roper. I can't work out whether she is supposed to have been in love with Miss Roper, in which case her cross-dressing, undertaken only after Miss Roper's death, would have an added pathetic irony, or with Wendley; I'm inclined to assume the former. Either way, the perils of attraction and attractiveness are once again involved, as they are in many of Aickman's stories about women. (His stories about men, on the other hand, tend to glamorize and mystify female attractiveness. These are not incompatible approaches, but I'll withhold further discussion of the point for a more appropriate essay.) And the ending, in which Margaret uses Beech's bloodstained blouse to wave to the train, represents the triumph of Margaret's cleverness over Mimi's sex appeal, Mimi having given up and been reduced to near-catatonia. There is also the potency of the approaching train, previously an image of mystery, power, and danger, becoming a symbol of hoped-for rescue.

There is, though, a darker reading of the story's final image. Miss Roper, after all, had been signalling from the same window several times a day for years, and all anyone ever did was wave back. Although the blood on Beech's blouse might be expected to garner more attention, there is no guarantee that Aickman meant to suggest Margaret and Mimi would achieve rescue; one cannot rule out the possibility that they are trapped.  But that would be atypical, as Aickman's stories with female protagonists generally end, if not optimistically, than at least with the sense that their lives have opened out rather than being curtailed: "Bind Your Hair," "The School Friend," "Into the Wood," "The Real Road to the Church," "Growing Boys," "The Next Glade." ("The Inner Room" is an exception, though, to the extent that its protagonist's gender is significant, and "Hand in Glove" is a more pertinent one.) It is that sense of opening out with which "The Trains" begins:
On the moors, as early as this, the air no longer clung about her, impeding her movements, absorbing her energies. Now a warm breeze seemed to lift her up and bear her on: the absorption process was reversed; her blood stream drew impulsion from the zephyrs. Her thoughts raced from her in all directions, unproductive but joyful.
Such "lifting up" is the result of supernatural experience in many of Aickman's tales, whether they end well or ill; even the fatal carries with it certain revelations. "The Trains" is thus the first of many explorations of what one will find if one wanders (forgive the slight muddling of metaphors) off the beaten track.


  1. Ah, yes. I think I'll be reading some Aickman soon.

  2. Interesting analysis, though I disagree on some points, especially in the final paragraph. It seems to me there's no question of whether the protagonists are trapped in the room at the end, whether or not this is typical of Aickman's work (which doesn't strike me as an important consideration in any case). And what exactly does "opening out" of a life entail anyway? Revelation, potentially catastrophic? In that sense perhaps the end of this story could be considered the aftermath of a particularly unpleasant opening out in the life or lives of one or both of the main characters.

    It is a fairly baffling story, though, even by Aickman's standards, so disagreements between individual readings of it are inevitable. My own reading of it, insofar as I've tried to apply fairly ordinary logic to deriving a fairly ordinary meaning from it, is probably a little off the rails (if you will): new industrial gods and a form of human sacrifice, delivered with typically elegant obliqueness. An extended metaphor for Aickman's disaffection for the environmental and human impacts of an increasingly mechanized society, and an industrialized, overpopulated and overdeveloped natural environment.

    Think about it. Silent movie images of shrieking women tied to train tracks like propitiatory offerings to some terrible deity. The trains themselves, modern mechanical juggernauts tearing through the countryside, overwhelming anything & everything in their paths (the fervent believer now supplanted by the occasional suicide).

    Perhaps a Roper tradition of offering up women in some way to keep the gods of the rail (real, imagined, or maybe both) running efficiently would help explain the butler's behavior--less a personality quirk than a survival strategy, which allows her to sustain her weird loyalty to the family.

    But, of course, in the end, as usual with Aickman, it's all anyone's guess. And, at the same time, no one's.

  3. And what exactly does "opening out" of a life entail anyway?

    In this context, a recognition of greater personal power and opportunity than had previously been realized. As with the women freed from ineffective men or male expectation in "The School Friend," "Into the Wood," "Growing Boys," "The Next Glade." That this is so common a trend in Aickman's stories from the female point of view is, of course, hardly conclusive, but I'm not inclined to regard it as meaningless either.

    Of course, a third argument is that the very maintenance of ambiguity is what's meaningful, that the story ends where it does not for the sake of a potent final image but to deny a concrete resolution, perhaps because it doesn't matter. Obviously a great many Aickman stories end on a note of obscurity, so I'll probably return to the topic in further essays. There's a related question of how dark or pessimistic is Aickman's fiction as a whole-- some of it is very bleak, but I often see generalizations about his vision that I'm not sure I agree with. This has little enough to do with how "The Trains" ends, of course.

    The notion of sacrifice is a striking one, and in line with the sort of older story on the basic structure of which "The Trains" builds. I'm not quite sure how to make a conscious tradition of sacrifice fit with what we know from the story. If that's the secret Miss Roper was keeping from Wendley, why is he targeting Mimi and Margaret at all? If that's not the secret, what is? On the other hand, Beech's suggestive remarks about how Wendley might use the secret would make sense in this light. Certainly given Aickman's symbolic use of trains the deaths on the railway do have an air of sacrifice about them. One could even read that final image of the bloody blouse as an (unconscious) declaration that sacrifice has been made, propitiation offered.

    Another thing about that waving to the train is the talk earlier in the story about there being "something wrong" with girls who wave first. Which brings sex back in, of course, and reminds one that both Wendley and the man from the Guest House seem to be appraising Mimi in a personal and physical way. How that might fit in, I've no idea. One could take it that Wendley has targeted Mimi and Margaret for his own lascivious purposes and in so doing has stumbled onto the sacrificial secret of the trains. The story is so frustratingly vague about Wendley actually does-- if you read it carefully, it isn't even unambiguously clear that he's chasing Mimi at all.

    The cross-dressing. As far as explaining it within the story, I'm satisfied with what she says herself-- that it's a ruse to allow her to remain in the house with Wendley. Quite why that propriety matters to her or to him I don't know, but I'll accept that it does. (Very likely they don't want nosiness that would stir up questions about how Miss Roper died.) The question then is why Aickman wanted that element in the story at all, assuming he had a reason rather than an instinctive inspiration. I tried to work it out in the essay, but I'm not sure I succeeded, and that, plus the question of Miss Roper's secret, makes me wonder whether I've really "gotten at" the story at all, to the extent that Aickman can ever be gotten at. Every time I look at Beech's exchange with Margaret at the very end of the story I feel certain that all the answers are there, but I can't quite tease them out. Ah well-- I've only read it three times, there'll be more chances.

    Thanks for your comment.

  4. I'll have to look at Trains again soon, certainly, as it's been years since I last read it and I'm only going on faded recollections here.

    I'd forgotten about this "secret" that the old woman supposedly refused to give up, which was given as part of the reason for her confinement. Perhaps it's just a lie, though, a red herring. The end of the story suggests that keeping the women trapped in the room, presumably till their deaths, in view of the passing trains, is an end in itself, perhaps an acceptable form of sacrifice. Otherwise, why wouldn't their captor forcibly enter the room and get what he wants through violence (whether it's rape, or some obscure piece of real or imagined information he thinks they possess)? The implication seems to be that he wants them in there, for whatever reason, where none but the passing train drivers can see them, and even they will only misinterpret their cries for help as the greetings of eccentric recluses.

    In any case, thanks for the stimulating blog entry, and getting me interested in once again rereading Aickman.

  5. Brendan, your essay was as enjoyable and astute as your previous ones thank you. I always thought that The Trains was Aickman's first lesbian story, and I also thought that Mimi and Margaret were stuck in the loop of waving at the trains with no hope of rescue.

    Reading 'The River Runs Uphill' I see that that the waving girl/crone was related to Aickman by a railway porter whilst he awaited Rolt for a trip upriver.

    Apropos L.T.C. Rolt, his ghost collection 'Sleep No More' was initially published by Aickman and his wife's publishing company. It is a grand collection for the fan, and well worth the read.

  6. Oh, the train! Aickman is actually being surprisingly blunt with the imagery in this story, isn't he? This one story may provide the keys to the mysteries of many other Aickman stories.

    The precocious Mimi leads Margaret on this little adventure into the feminine rolling hills and valleys, sweating and exhausted, they meet a sweaty, leering man at the little tavern, and shortly afterward we are treated to a scene of the fireman daemoniacally stoking his train and plunging it deep into the oily tunnel beneath the hills, leaving the girl shivering in the wake of the train's passing!

    It is, perhaps, interesting to look at the suggestion of girls - and men - being "sacrificed" to the trains again.

    In the first part of the story, the trains are definitely treated to what looks to me like very clear and definite, mostly normal masculine imagery and symbolism.

    But, something has gone wrong by the time the girls get to the house where the second half of the story takes place.

    At first glance, the house is stacked with all the railroad totems and fetishes of symbolic masculinity, in fact quite tastelessly and tactlessly so.

    But, if you sneak back deeply enough into the house, you find that the house is not at all what it seems, and the rest of the story leaves more questions than it answers about the gender and number of characters involved in this story, and their relationships to each other.

    I think we can look out in other stories for similar themes, and in this sense, I think we can compare "The Trains", "Ravissante", "The Wine-Dark Sea", "The Insufficient Answer", and "Niemandswasser", for examples.