I’m pleased to announce that Rustblind and Silverbright has been nominated by the British Fantasy Society for Best Anthology. This is a great credit to the thought and care that editor David Rix has given to producing this book, and the way he drew together a varied and powerful group of uncategorisable stories themed around railways and train journeys.
This anthology includes “The Turning Track”, a novelette I co-authored with Matt Joiner, where a fantastical train runs through the multiverse to haunt the dreams of those struggling with a shabby and repressive reality. Another story in this anthology, Nina Allan’s “Vivian Guppy and the Brighton Belle”, has also received a nomination for Best Novella.
I’ve been meaning to write about Rustblind for a while, and now have an excellent excuse. I’ve also been wanting to respond to a few questions about a line sung by the dedicated station-master as he awaits this mighty multi-dimensional Train:
“I asked my captain for the time of day… he said he throwed his watch away”.
These lyrics actually come from a traditional song noted for ominous trains and lonesome forests: “In the Pines” aka “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” The line about the thrown-away watch has fallen out of the most well-known renditions, but I think it’s one of the most haunting lines in a song full of train wrecks and decapitated bodies and desolation.
“In the Pines” is also a song about loss, and this echoes profoundly because the anthology contains “The Last Train” by the late Joel Lane. Last year’s launch for Rustblind was the last time I saw him, and that was the case for others involved with this book. I have a feeling that Joel was a guy who spent a lot of time in the pines.
While many people first came across this song through Nirvana’s 1990’s rendition, it actually dates back to southern Appalachia in the 19th century. Other musicians who performed “In the Pines” include Leadbelly, Earl Monroe, the Carter Family, Dolly Parton, Marianne Faithfull, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Greatful Dead, Hole and even Tiny Tim.
Many American folk songs portray the building of the railroads, the advent of train travel and the Depression of the 1930s when immigrants and working class people rode the rails in search of work or a better life. Music historian Norm Cohen wrote a book that explores this legacy, Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong. A good chunk is devoted to “In the Pines”, which belongs to a ‘cluster’ of songs. Songs in this cluster include the “in the pines” chorus, a stanza about ‘the longest train’ and one about a train crash where someone’s head is found in the driving wheel or ‘round the firebox door’.
I first heard this song as a teenager, and it has always fascinated me. Why does the girl hide in pines where the cold winds blow, and why do those who are outcast and bereft flee there? Some versions are addressed to a “black girl”; was she running from slavery to seek refuge in the pines? Or was she hiding there after her husband, ‘a railroad man’, was lynched?
Dominating the song is ‘the longest train’, which often stands outside time itself. The train might kill a loved one, take a loved one away, or transport a migrant worker to exile. But sometimes the protagonists ride that train back home.
This song inspired my 2006 novelette “In the Pines”, where it links three characters through space and time. This appeared in the anthology Extended Play: the Elastic Book of Music. And the melancholy chords of “In the Pines” continued to echo in my mind as I collaborated on “The Turning Track”.
To mark the nomination of Rustblind and Silverbright, I’m sharing a few of my favourite performances of “In the Pines”. It makes sense to start with Nirvana’s version, which introduced the old song to a new audience.
Kurt Cobain drew much of his inspiration from Leadbelly’s interpretation. In this recording, Leadbelly addresses the song to a “black girl”, though he sings ‘my girl’ in another recording.
Here’s a classic bluegrass version by Bill Monroe, which features that ‘high lonesome sound’. The ‘longest train’ is prominent from the first verse and we don’t hear about the severed head.
Leadbelly and his successors have left out the verses about the ‘longest train’ and the discarded watch. But this bluegrass rendition by Lori Lee Ray gets everything in, as does this Joan Baez performance. Lori Lee Ray’s video below also contains powerful images of trains, pine forests and clocks.
Finally, here is an absolutely eerie version performed by Hole. Dare I say that sometimes I prefer this to Nirvana’s rendition?
Of reviews and cats
While I’m at it, I might as well post a couple of reviews of Rustblind that came out last year, which I missed during a period of busyness and bloggage-drought. So here’s a review on Rising Shadow by Serengil and another from Nick Jackson in Sein und Werden.
Serengil describes “The Turning Track” as:
“A fascinating story about love, death and a mysterious train… a beautiful example of what authors can achieve when they know how to write good fiction and have plenty of imagination. This story is a sparkling gem of literary speculative fiction that will seduce the reader with good prose and strange happenings.”
And Nick Jackson writes in Sein und Werden:
“Mat Joiner and Rosanne Rabinowitz co-authored the final piece in the collection and take up the idea of an infinite train travelling between this world and the next. ‘The Turning Track’ concerns a gay man’s aim to complete a history of a mysterious train begun by his late partner. This piece is particularly strong on characterisation and contains some wonderfully gory detail of human-to-machine transformation. With all dual-authored stories, you look for the seams in the narrative. In this case there don’t seem to be any but my money is on Rosanne for introducing a particularly characterful cat.”
Thanks Serengil and Nick. At this point I’ll offer a belated response to Nick’s comments about Fintan the cat. It was Mat who introduced the cat but I gave the moggie his name. And it was our critiquer, Joel Lane, who had urged us to make Fintan more than mere ‘furry freight’ – to give him more presence and render him ‘characterful’. My first response was ‘well, he’s cat and he does what cats do’. Then I thought again…
So I’ll leave with another thank-you to Joel.