The Platform Edge, edited by Mike Ashley – Review
By David Schuster
Why do we have such an enduring fascination with the mysteries of train travel? What is it about our collective psyche that makes stories, such as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, still strike a chord? That’s the premise central to the British Library’s excellent collection of uncanny tales of the railways, The Platform Edge, the latest volume in their outstanding, and continually growing, Tales of the Weird series.
Edited by renowned author and Science Fiction expert Mike Ashley, The Platform Edge follows the pattern of other books in the series; being a collection of short stories with a shared theme. However, it differs from the others in one key respect: The tales span the years 1878 to 1985, a period which finishes much closer to the present day than the usual range, which tend to focus on the Victorian heyday of Gothic tales, emphasising that travelling by rail is something which many of us still do on a regular basis.
From our current position in history, where the car has dominated personal travel for the last fifty years, it’s difficult to imagine the revolution that was caused by the arrival of the locomotive. The journey from York to London, which previously took four days by horse-drawn carriage, could suddenly be accomplished in a single day. This was such a radical change that time itself had to be adjusted. Until the need for national timetables, each city had its own local time, which varied across the UK by up to twenty minutes, and across North America by more than an hour!
Given this sudden transition of speed and distance, it’s not surprising that high profile tragedy and mystery soon followed. Two of the most infamous at the time were the highly reported, gruesome death of M.P. William Huskisson, run down by Stephenson’s engine The Rocket at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester line, and the still unsolved disappearance of Louis Le Prince, Leeds based inventor of moving pictures, en-route to Paris.
“Hugely enjoyable journey”
The stories are pleasingly diverse and wide ranging: ‘A Strange Night’ tells of tragedy repeated night after night in the true Gothic horror tradition of someone relating a mystery they have experienced. Whilst ‘A Subway Named Möbius’ is an archetypal 1950’s science fiction story of parallel worlds. Amongst these there’s also a refreshing smattering of real oddities; ‘A Smoking Ghost’ toys, tongue firmly in cheek, with the idea that nicotine addiction might be powerful enough to reach beyond the grave and, uniquely, ‘The Tragedy in the Train’ is an intriguing detective yarn in the ‘locked room’ tradition, with no element of the supernatural.
Sometimes the tales serve to highlight how much the world has changed in a relatively short space of time: Written in 1894, ‘The Man with the Cough’ features a central character whose job it is to transport patents in secret, something that happens instantaneously now, since the advent of encrypted email. However, as always with tales of the supernatural, it’s where you personally relate to them that makes the greatest impression. As someone who enjoys riding the traditional but run-down ghost trains of Britain’s seaside resorts, it is the slowly growing horror of Ramsey Cambell’s abandoned funfair story, ‘The Companion’ that will stay with me the longest.
One of the continuing joys of the Tales of the Weird series is that each chapter is preceded by a brief, one-page biography of the author. They often throw up interesting snippets, such as Zoe Underhill who, when she died in 1934, had been the last living friend of Abraham Lincoln, or the humorous pseudonym of the Mansfield brothers, Huan Mee. Sometimes too the authors themselves are a mystery; nothing is known about the writer of ‘The Last Train’, Michael Vincent, except his name. All the more remarkable, given that it was published in 1964.
The Platform Edge is an entertaining and hugely enjoyable journey into the uncanny, especially if you read it when you travel by rail. But, be prepared for the unexpected next time you find yourself alone in the carriage late at night: Is everything really as it seems?
‘The Platform Edge: Uncanny Tales of the Railways’ edited by Mike Ashley is published by The British Library, £8.99 paperback