Thursday, December 12, 2019

"The Four-Fifteen Express" (1866)

English novelist Amelia B. Edwards's most famous ghost story is called "The Phantom Coach," a corker in the mode of Washington Irving and pretty good. But this is the one I found in the massive, uneven, yet always promising Realms of Darkness collection edited by Mary Danby. This story is not bad either, with a somber December mood, but proceeds more like a crime case with no resolution, built on the evidence and an investigation. In many ways it's closer to a cozy, or perhaps even detective fiction, than horror. A man, the one telling the story, gets on a train to visit a friend and his family in the English countryside at Christmas. He's upper-class, a diplomat or legal figure of some sort. He looks forward to his visit, to a break from his work, and to traveling alone, but just as the train starts another man joins him in his compartment. He is a slight acquaintance and mutual friend of the people he is traveling to visit. This late-arriving man is "loquacious, self-important, full of his pet project," and is soon droning along like the clacking train tracks themselves. Our man is bored and keeps drowsing off. The late-arriving man is offended because he considers himself and his story so interesting. Suddenly he has business elsewhere and gets off the train, vanishing entirely from the platform, as if in a puff. Our man, having arrived at his destination, relates the encounter to his hosts, which makes them extraordinarily uncomfortable. Three months earlier, the late-arriving talker had embezzled a large sum of money and disappeared. Our man's story thus makes no sense, but he also has concrete evidence it happened. The police are interested, and the company that was embezzled is interested. But they are also skeptical of the story, except our man has this irrefutable piece of evidence that no one can explain. In the end, almost as a throwaway, it is explained, leaving him completely baffled by the experience. And so are we, as readers, though it doesn't have the same urgency for us—it's merely mysterious, rarely uncanny. An unsolved mystery, as Robert Stack might say in his furry unmistakable voice. But it does work away on you a little. Did it even happen? Could our man the narrator somehow be simply mistaken? Or deluded? Most people dismiss it as a dream he had on the train ride, and perhaps it was. It's almost perfectly open-ended.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
Read story online.

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