World Storytelling Day celebrates the art of storytelling. In the build-up to its next edition, which takes the train and its impact on society as its starting point, EUROPALIA has selected 8 short stories in which trains not only appear in the background but often play a central role.
EUROPALIA TRAINS & TRACKS, from 14 October 2021 until 15 May 2022. The festival is currently being developed; in the meantime, subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date. Happy reading!
Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac - Le train bleu s'arrête treize fois (1966)
This collection of short stories is the work of two authors, Pierre Boileau (1906-1989) and Thomas Narcejac (1908-1998), both lovers of detective literature. The majority of their novels were adapted into films by renowned directors, including Hitchcock. Le train bleu s'arrête 13 fois consists of 13 short stories, each story being a mystery surrounding one of the train's 13 stops between Paris and Menton. The Calais-Mediterranée Express, a French
luxury night train by Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Litsthat ran from 1886 to 2003, was often called le train bleu because of its dark blue sleeper cars. It was also made into a French television series in thirteen episodes, broadcast on the ORTF channel during the 1960s.
Charles Dickens – ‘The Signal-Man’, from Mugby Junction (1866)
In this ghost story, a signalman – the person responsible for switching railway tracks – is haunted by an apparition. Each time before a terrible accident is about to happen, a ghostly figure appears at the entrance of the tunnel close to the signalman’s work post. After the ghost’s first appearance, two trains collide, a storyline that may be based on a real tragedy, the Clayton Tunnel Crash of 1861. But what follows is even more terrifying.
Stefan Grabinski – ‘The Wandering Train’, from The Motion Demon (1919)
Grabinski is sometimes called the “Polish Edgar Allan Poe” or the “Polish H.P. Lovecraft”. At the beginning of the 20th century, he wrote about themes that no other horror/fantasy writer of the time was exploring and thus developed his own unmistakable style. The Motion Demon is a collection of short stories in which the train takes on sinister forms. A train driver taken hostage by his train; a traveller waiting for a train that never arrives and in ‘The Wandering Train’, a wandering ghost train with no destination. These are just some of the macabre characters featured in this collection.
Nathaniel Hawthorne – ‘The Celestial Railroad’, from Mosses from an Old Manse (1846)
‘The Celestial Railroad’ parodies John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which he describes the spiritual journey of a Christian pilgrim. In Hawthorne’s story, the pilgrim doesn’t travel by foot but by train. The narrator comments on the differences between a traditional pilgrimage and a train journey: passengers place their luggage in overhead racks instead of on their backs and they mock the pilgrims they see walking along the road from their windows. The train also passes several places from The Pilgrim’s Progress. Despite these similarities, after a while the passengers begin to wonder whether the train will actually take them to their promised destination, heaven. When the train driver assumes the form of a mechanical demon, the narrator fears that the price of a train ticket is his soul.
Alice Munro – ‘Train’, from Family Furnishings (2014)
We first meet Jackson when he jumps off a train as it passes through rural Ontario, Canada, on his way home after World War II. A chance meeting with Belle, who lives in a farmhouse beside the railway tracks, leads to a shared life. The story begins and ends with a train, and trains also have a big influence on both characters. This short story was first published in Harper’s Magazine in 2012. During her career, Munro, the so-called “Canadian Chekhov”, has written several stories in which characters make an almost metaphorical train journey to another life.
Victor Pelevin – ‘The Yellow Arrow’ (1993)
After a strange encounter with a fellow traveller, Andrei, a passenger onboard an
express train called The Yellow Arrow, begins to wonder about the train’s ultimate destination. While other passengers seem oblivious, with each chapter Andrei searches ever more desperately for a way out. The train symbolises life, and the turning of the wheels, the passing of time. This Russian author alternates between science fiction and lyrical meditations on the past and future, resulting in an absurd, sometimes sublime but above all chilling tale.
Sylvia Plath – ‘Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom’ (2019)
Sylvia Plath wrote this short story as a school assignment at the age of twenty. Hidden in archives for several decades, the story has only recently been published. The text shows how Plath, starting out as a writer, experimented with form and sought her own literary voice. Mary Ventura is put on a train to the so-called ninth kingdom by her parents. Along the way, she meets a woman who urges her to take her fate into her own hands. Mary pulls an emergency brake and manages to escape from the train, after which she finds herself in a completely new place. A project around this short story is currently being developed; it will be part of the performing arts programme of EUROPALIA TRAINS & TRACKS.
Annelies Verbeke – ‘Lijst’, from Treinen en Kamers (2021)
For Treinen en Kamers (Trains and Rooms) Annelies Verbeke wrote 15 short stories inspired by classics of world literature. One of them is The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, written around the year 1000. Shonagon was a court lady in the imperial court of Japan. In her book, she describes the courtiers around her, her disappointments and the passing of the seasons. Shonagon is especially fond of lists. For example, she lists the things that
make her heart race: walking past children playing, sparrows with their chicks, looking into a fogged-up mirror... Annelies Verbeke adopts this formula as the starting point for a monologue by a train conductor who reads her passengers a list of uplifting things.