Sleep No More: L T C Rolt

11 Jun

The first half of the twentieth century was a golden era viewed in terms of the English ghost story. We may trace the real foundation of that era to the early years of the century, when M R James set the standard by which his successors would be judged. Successors there were: those whose stories, because they exhibited similarities to the style of the maestro, are often classed as ‘Jamesian’. This classification simplifies matters too much and tends to deny the author credit for his or her own particular talent. However, bearing in mind that some of these successors were friends and associates of James, sharing an academic background and an interest in manuscripts, it is hardly surprising that there should be some similarity in subject matter. Nor should it be overlooked that James utilised several excellent plot devices, which would naturally appeal to anyone attempting to write ghost stories at a later date. There are a limited number of plots available to writers in any genre, and often the best an author can hope is that he or she may be able to bring an exciting new twist to a plot that has been used several times before. Writers like R H Malden, A N L Muny, E G Swain and Arthur Gray succeeded in doing that (to a great extent). Others, like H R Wakefield, succeeded when they ‘borrowed’ plots from James, but also developed their talent to a much greater extent, with the result that their work stands very much on its own, and has its own distinct style. L T C Rolt (1910-1974) is one author whose work very clearly displays an individual style. True, there are ‘Jamesian’ touches here and there in his stories, but Rolt’s background and environment were very different from that of the traditional ‘Jamesians’ mentioned previously.

Rolt was a historian rather than an academic: not a historian bound up in the study of mediaevalism, but one whose sense of realism pervades his work. In that role he was able to bring the freshness of actuality to his writings about rural and industrial Britain. Rolt’s interests are reflected in his writings and range over subjects which include inland waterways, railways, motoring, topography, philosophy and engineering. These are all topics which spill in some form into his ghost stories; topics which bring to those stories the reality of everyday life which is almost absent in the traditional ‘Jamesian’ presentation. Born in Chester in 1910, Rolt moved with his family to the southern marches of Wales on the eve of the outbreak of World War One in August 1914. His new home was an influence easily observed in some of his stories, but Chester, too, seems to have played an important part in raising the young Rolt’s awareness of the supernatural through its many links with the past. Rolt began writing seriously in the 1930s, but it was not until 1944 that his first book, Narrow Boat, was published. Now regarded as a classic of canal literature, Narrow Boat tells the story of the barge Cressy, which was adapted for Rolt and his first wife Angela, and in which they made a journey of some four hundred miles along the network of waterways in the Midlands of England. Sleep No More, Rolt’s first volume of ghost stories, was published in 1948, and he was hailed by his publishers as the successor to M R James. Whilst this claim may have been too much, it is true that Rolt at his very best – Cwm Garon for example (click to read!) – comes close to the singular cleverness of James in telling a ghost story.

In his article The Passing of the Ghost Story, Rolt wrote: “One reviewer of this recent book [The Third Ghost Book] maintained that the ghost story had no future because the number of possible plots was limited… On the contrary, never was a world so full of sinister possibilities.” In Sleep No More Rolt supports his view very effectively by using a range of up-to-date situations in setting with which we can all identify. The Mine visits the old lead-mining district of Snailbeach, set on the slopes of the Stiperstones in Shropshire. This is a wild and haunting area even when seen on a warm summer’s day, an area in which myths abound. The Stiperstones is a long ridge scatted with craggy masses, most notably the Devil’s Chair, which, like other outcrops with a similar name, was reputedly formed when the Devil dropped rocks from a load he was carrying. Rolt’s setting for The Mine is perfect, and the understatement of the closing paragraphs is a masterpiece of horror. In Bosworth Summit Pound, Rolt draws on his wide experience of Britain’s canals to produce the eeriest of settings for a ghost story. The Garside Fell Disaster once more draws on an actual location – Blea Moor on the Settle-Carlisle railway line – and, in a way, heralds one of Rolt’s later works, a history of railway accidents and railway safety. In this story Rolt skilfully breathes life into something as inanimate as a railway tunnel. Rolt displayed an excellent eye for small detail, too, an attribute never more evident than in his description of Amos Bingley in A Visitor at Ashcombe.

These were the men Rolt knew, the surroundings he recognised, and these are the characters and surroundings which emerge in his ghost stories. Rolt was a crusader, a man who cared passionately for our heritage, a man who was prepared to translate his caring into action, as he more than adequately demonstrated through his work with the Inland Waterways Association and the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society. Far from being happy to pontificate from an armchair, he was one of life’s doers: a man of the world. His experiences and his interests enabled him to present us with a collection of stories which transcends the range of the ghost story as written by a number of ‘Jamesian’ authors, but he could be ‘Jamesian’ too. But, while Rolt’s stories are in the James tradition, they differ from the stories of James. Where James’s settings are ecclesiastical, Rolt’s are industrial: James’s cathedrals are Rolt’s foundries. Rolt adds to this by conveying a love and awareness of the environment through a descriptive technique which is often absent from James’s stories – despite James’s apparent liking for travel and the open air, he rarely waxed lyrical about the countryside in his ghost stories. Both authors succeed for the same reason: they write of their own time and of surroundings with which they are familiar. In Rolt’s case that familiarity is with mountains, canals, railway tunnels, mines and foundries.

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