Book Review: LTC Rolt, “Sleep No More”: Railway, Canal and other stories of the supernatural.

LTC Rolt (1910-1974) was a writer who is chiefly known for his biographies of important figures in engineering (such as Brunel and Telford) and his many writings on Britain’s industrial heritage. As a sideline to his more well-known factual work, he also wrote ghost stories.

A collection of these, Sleep No More, was published in 1948. It was well received at the time and continues to be held in some regard. By all accounts, at the time of publication Rolt drew (and continues to draw) comparisons with MR James. Particularly in his lifetime, James exerted a lot of influence over other ghost story writers, and Rolt seems to have consciously written in the same grain. This doesn’t make him a mere imitator or plagiarist. On the contrary I think James himself would have been the first to admit that his own writing owed a debt to others who had gone before him (Sheriden le Fanu for instance). It’s best, then, to see Rolt as continuing the essential traditions of the ‘classic’ british ghost story. Among other qualities, this means that his stories have a naturalistic setting, and the main protagonists are recognisable types, none of whom is especially out of the ordinary but who, through bad luck or ill-judged curiosity, certainly end up having an extraordinary encounter with something of supernatural origin.

As suggested by the book’s subtitle, Rolt gave his own twist to the MR Jamesian formula, so that instead of the latter’s assortment of scholars, antiquarians and other seekers after knowledge getting more than they bargained for, Rolt’s protagonists mirror his own interests. As such the various central characters in the collection are made up of workmen, tourists, travellers, factory owners, railwaymen and the like. The settings are also different: canals, railways, woodland, country homes, mines, factories.

What Rolt shares with other British-based writers of ‘classic’ supernatural fiction is the ability to turn otherwise routine settings into places of malevolent supernatural intervention. Rolt’s story “The Garside Fell Disaster” shares this with Charles Dickens’ “The Railwayman” for example, where a railway cutting in the countryside is the scene of an accident which has possibly more to do with forces more malign than signal or mechanical error. In “New Corner” the modern literally crashes head on with the ancient, as a 1930s racing club’s decision to add an improved and exciting addition to their track cuts right through a site which the locals whispered should never be touched. “A Visitor at Ashcombe” provides a twist on the classic country house ghost story. This time the main protagonist is not a wealthy member of the landed gentry or a dissolute Lord of the Manor, but a Cradeley Heath ironmaker made very good indeed. He decides to move away and takes up residence in a large old house in the Cotswolds. As a hard-headed Black Countryman who fears nothing but God, he isn’t going to let any silly talk or superstition prevent him from using a hitherto locked room.

I think the stand-out piece in this collection is the story “Cwm Garron”, which is set in a beautiful but remote valley in the border country between England and Wales. Rolt takes a famously gnomic and enigmatic entry from Kilvert’s diary and turns it into a story. “An angel satyr walks these hills,” Kilvert once wrote, and to this day no-one knew what he meant. Rolt provides a potential answer to what it might be, in a tale that blends a strong plot and realistic characterisation. Fans of the film “The Wicker Man” might like this story, as it shares the effective plot device of putting the modern world at odds with an imagined community whose beliefs are far different and older than we know. For me, the most effective part of this story is the description of the landscape, which is obviously based on Rolt’s deep love for that part of the world. Yet again, however, his skill as a ghost story writer is in changing the perspective, so that a landscape which might strike us as beautiful and romantic, can easily be viewed a different way as being threatening and hostile. Edmund Burke with his notions of the sublime would have loved it.

Overall I don’t think Rolt reaches the standard set by MR James, but to be fair to him that’s an extremely high standard to try and reach. James’s narratives exhibit incredible finesse and dexterity, and if there’s one thing Rolt is guilty of at times it’s the tendency towards slightly clunky ‘gear changes’ in the narrative, a rather obvious pointing out when something scary is going to happen, the written equivalent of those “I have a bad feeling about this” lines that crop up in Star Wars scripts by George Lucas. Another mild criticism I have is that a couple of the stories have an undeveloped feel to them, and read more like vignettes than the fully developed stories they perhaps deserved to be (the short tale “Hear not my Steps” in which a psychical researcher Davies finally has an encounter with a ghost is really very good indeed, and would be a great start point for a contemporary ghost story writer to try and develop).

Overall, however, Rolt is certainly worthy of his reputation of one of the better writers of ghost stories in the ‘classic’ vein. It’s a shame that at present this book isn’t that easy to get hold of, so if you come across a copy or see any of his stories in an anthology, give him a try.