Sunday, September 28, 2014

as close to perfect as an anthology ought to be: Rustblind and Silverbright: A Slipstream Anthology of Railway Stories, ed. David Rix

Eibonvale Press, 2013
365 pp


"The rhythm of the rails is like a lullaby, comforting as the movement of our mother's bodies while we were still inside the womb. The destination is never quite known. The glimpses we get of backyards and gardens and lanes: voyeuristic, placing no obligation upon us to interact or judge. They seem to embody a hundred thousand alternatives to our own lives, threads not yet grasped, other ways to brighter futures." 
-- Douglas Thompson,  "Sunday Relatives."

"And mind the gap of course."
--Daniella Geary, "Death Trains of Durdensk." 

Until someone recently recommended it to me, I'd never heard of Rustblind and Silverbright, an anthology of slipstream stories joined together by their focus on trains and the railways.  I have to say, this is not only one of the best anthologies I've read this year, if not the best, but one of the most cohesive from a thematic standpoint.  The editor, David Rix, has done an excellent job here, putting together a number of pieces that frankly, I couldn't tear myself away from without a lot of resentment toward whatever it was that made me put the book down. 

Twenty-four stories make up this collection, each one of them simultaneously strange and fascinating. As the editor notes in his introduction, each of these tales, like railways everywhere, visit
"Worlds that can only be glimpsed from blurred windows or from the far end of the platform. Hidden places. Private places. Places where the ordinary and the secret meet."
These short stories take twists and turns as they branch into places that may seem familiar for a while before branching off again into altogether different territory.  Structured into three "acts," they're occasionally broken up by the editor who inserts little bits of history or other fascinating sidelines along with his thoughts.

The stories in this collection (with those little inserts by the editor denoted by "--") are:

act 1
"Tetsudo Fan", by Andrew Hook
--"Animal Station Masters"
 "On the Level, by Allen Ashley:
"The Wandering Scent," by Aliya Whiteley
--"Die Breitspurbahn"
"To the Anhalt Station," by  John Howard
"Death Trains of Durdensk," by Daniella Geary
"Vivian Guppy and the Brighton Belle," by Nina Allan
--"UK Ghost Trains"
"The Last Train," by Joel Lane
"Writer's Block," by SJ Fowler
act 2
-- "Northern Line Tube Announcement, by Anon" 
"The Path of Garden Forks," by Rhys Hughes
--"London Underground Mosquito"
"District to Upminster," by Marion Pitman
"Wi-Fi Enabled Bakerloo Sunset," by R.D Hodkinson
--"The DLR Shuffle"
"Stratford International," by David McGroarty
"The Cuts," by Danny Rhodes
"Sleepers," by Christopher Harman
--"The Dumb Network"
"Escape on a Train," by Steve Rasnic Tem
"Choice," by Charles Wilkinson
act 3
"Embankmen," by Gavin Salisbury
"Sunday Relatives," by Douglas Thompson
--"The Necropolis Railway that Was and the Sewage Railway that Wasn't"
"The Engineered Soul," by Jet McDonald
"Didcotts," by John Greenwood
--"The Little Carriage to North Korea"
"The Keeper," by Andrew Coulthard
"Not All Trains Crash," by Steven Pirie
"The Turning Track," by Rosanne Rabinowitz and Matt Joiner

followed by author biographies.  

 Truth be told, I loved most all of these  tales, but I did have a few personal favorites:

 Danny Rhodes' "The Cuts" was a most perfect story.  A briefcase-toting civil servant, an arrogant, pompous "characterless bureaucrat" working for the government, travels by train to Wales in November, 1963.  He is sent there to "show some some willingness to listen" after the protests about  the Beeching railroad cuts outlined earlier that year, but he knows that it's a done deal ("he had the figures in his logbook") and his journey is purely for show.  When he stops at Rhosgoch, he is surprised that he finds no protestors there to greet him -- but what he does find is the stuff of nightmares.  Not only is this story beyond good and highly atmospheric, it has the best and most fitting ending I've come across in a very long time.  

Nina Allan's "Vivian Guppy and the Brighton Belle" is another favorite in this collection - taking the action from real to model trains.  A woman whose career in model trains stems from childhood is hired by a man named Vivian Guppy to find a particular model  that he'd sold and now wants to buy back. When she finds out why, things start taking some pretty strange turns. This story is written as if the author is telling the story in person rather than on the page, but at the same time, she also pays so much attention to detail that in describing every bit of a model dining car, for example,  you feel like you're actually peeking through the windows into an entirely different world.  Luckily, it's longer than a typical short story, almost novella length, so it's not over too quickly, but left me beyond unsettled. That's a good thing.

" Tetsudo Fan":  one of my gauges for any anthology is the appeal of first story and author Andrew Hook didn't let me down here. I was so taken aback at this tale of two Japanese tetsudō (railway) enthusiasts who come together - one helping the other to take his hobby another step further into an entirely different world -  truly setting the tone for what's to come. After reading this one, I knew this entire book was going to be just up my alley. The story succeeds on so many levels of weirdness, but mostly because it's so grounded in reality.

Rounding out my other favorites are  "Sleepers," by Christopher Harman;  moving on into Kafka territory there's  "Didcotts" by John Greenwood, and finally,  "Not All Trains Crash," by Steven Pirie. 

I also have to say that now when I hear that lonesome whistle blow in the distance, a little chill crawls up my spine.  It's one of those books that once you've turned the last page becomes embedded in your brain and never leaves.

I know that in no sense of the word is this a "literary" review, since I am not particularly talented in that arena,  but they do exist: here's one at The Short Review, and one real-time ongoing one from Dreamcatcher Review of Fiction Books.  My thanks to Seregil of Rhiminee for pointing me in this book's direction. His review can be found here, at Rising Shadow.

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