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When Joy Division met William S. Burroughs


 
When you consider all of the famous and infamous people who William Burroughs met in his lifetime, maybe the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game should be adapted for the late Beat author. I’d have a “Burroughs” of one, as I met him (briefly) in Los Angeles in 1996 at his big art opening at LACMA.

At the Reality Studio blog, there’s a fascinating tale, told in great detail, about the time Joy Division shared the same stage with Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Cabaret Voltaire in Belgium. Ian Curtis was an avid reader and favored counterculture fare like J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and Hermann Hesse. William Burroughs was one of his biggest heroes.

Joy Division was given its first opportunity to play outside the United Kingdom on 16 October 1979. That alone would have distinguished the gig for the band, but of special interest to Curtis and his mates was the fact that they would be opening for Burroughs. The avant-garde theater troupe Plan K, which had made a specialty of interpreting Burroughs’ work, were founding a performance space in a former sugar refinery in Brussels, Belgium. The opening was conceived as a multimedia spectacle. Films were to be screened — among others, Nicholas Roeg’s Performance (starring Mick Jagger) and Burroughs’ own experiments with Antony Balch. The Plan K theater troupe were to perform “23 Skidoo.” Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire were to give “rock” concerts. And Burroughs and Brion Gysin were to read from their recently published book, The Third Mind.

Before the evening’s events, Burroughs and Joy Division gave separate interviews to the culture magazine En Attendant. Graciously provided to RealityStudio by the interviewer and the organizer of the Plan K opening, Michel Duval, these have been translated from the French and are reproduced here for the first time since their publication in November 1979. You can read the French original or the English translation of Duval’s interview with Joy Division, as well as the French original or the English translation of Duval’s interview with William Burroughs.

After Burroughs’ reading brought the opening of Plan K to its climax, Curtis attempted to introduce himself to his literary idol. This meeting, like so many things about both Curtis and Burroughs, has already become legend — which is another way of saying that its factual basis may have receded into darkness. If you search around the internet, you’ll see sites describing the encounter in terms like this: “Unfortunately when Ian went up to talk to him the author told Ian to get lost.” And this: “Burroughs probably was tired and bored with the concerts and when Ian went up to talk with him the author told Ian to get lost. Ian got lost immediately, not a little hurt by the rebuff.” Chris Ott’s book Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures repeats the story, and Mark Johnson’s book An Ideal for Living asserts that Burroughs refused to speak to Curtis.

More after the jump…

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
That time Jack Kerouac asked Marlon Brando to make a movie of ‘On the Road’ 1957
04.27.2016
11:55 am

Topics:
Books
Heroes
Literature
Movies

Tags:
Jack Kerouac
Marlon Brando

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It’s fair to say most writers would like a movie made of their books—it’s a way of reaching a far greater audience and pegging a stake on fame, fortune and celluloid immortality. To this end, some writers often dream up a cast list of their favorite actors who they think are best suited to play the fictional characters they’ve created. Though of course this rarely happens as box office clout always beats artistic sensibilities when it comes to casting.

In September 1957, Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road was published to great and immediate acclaim. Film studios clamored to option the book. Warner Brothers expressed an interest as did Paramount, but Kerouac had his own ideas.

The Beat author wanted Marlon Brando to make a movie of On the Road. He thought Method actor Brando was perfect for the central role of Dean Moriarty. Kerouac was ambitious enough to consider himself for the role of his fictional alter ego and Moriarty’s sidekick Sal Paradise. Brando was a hot property. He was considered perhaps the greatest actor of his generation and had been nominated five times for an Academy Award—winning one for his performance in On the Waterfront in 1954. It was a big ask, but Kerouac was hopeful.

“Dear Marlon,” his letter began:

I’m praying that you’ll buy ON THE ROAD and make a movie of it. Don’t worry about the structure, I know to compress and re-arrange the plot a bit to give a perfectly acceptable movie-type structure: making it into one all-inclusive trip instead of the several voyages coast-to-coast in the book, one vast round trip from New York to Denver to Frisco to Mexico to New Orleans to New York again. I visualize the beautiful shots could be made with the camera on the front seat of the car showing the road (day and night) unwinding into the windshield, as Sal and Dean yak. I wanted you to play the part because Dean (as you know) is no dopey hotrodder but a real intelligent (in fact Jesuit) Irishman. You play Dean and I’ll play Sal (Warner Bros. mentioned I play Sal) and I’ll show you how Dean acts in real life, you couldn’t possibly imagine it without seeing a good imitation. Fact, we can go visit him in Frisco, or have him come down to L.A. still a real frantic cat but nowadays settled down with his final wife saying the Lord’s Prayer with his kiddies at night… as you’ll see when you read the play BEAT GENERATION. All I want out of this is to be able to establish myself and by mother a trust fund for life, so I can really go roaming around the world writing about Japan, India, France etc… I Want to be free to write what comes out of my head & free to feed my buddies when they’re hungry & not worry about my mother.

Incidentally, my next novel is THE SUBTERRANEANS coming out in N.Y. next March and is about a love affair between a white guy and a colored girl and is a very hep story. Some of the characters in it you know in the Village (Stanley Gould etc.) It easily could be turned into a play, easier than ON THE ROAD.

What I wanta do is re-do the theater and the cinema in America, give it a spontaneous dash, remove pre-conceptions of “situation” and let people rave on as they do in real life. That’s what the play is: no plot in particular, no “meaning” in particular, just the way people are. Everything I write I do in the spirit where I imagine myself an Angel returned to the earth seeing it with sad eyes as it is. I know you approve of these ideas, & incidentally the new Frank Sinatra show is based on “spontaneous” too, which is the only way to come on anyway, whether in business or life. The French movies of the 30’s are still far superior to ours because the French really let their actors come on and the writers didn’t quibble with some preconceived notion of how intelligent the movie audience is, they talked soul from soul and everybody understood at once. I want to make great French Movies in America, finally, when I’m rich… American theater & Cinema at present is an outmoded dinosaur that ain’t mutated along with the best in American Literature.

If you really want to go ahead, make arrangements to see me in New York when next you come, or if you’re going to FLorida here I am, but what we should do is talk about this because I prophesy that it’s going to be the beginning of something real great. I’m bored nowadays and I’m looking around for something to do in the world, anyway — writing novels is getting too easy, same with plays, I wrote the play in 24 hours.

Come on now, Marlon, put up your dukes and write!

Sincerely, later, Jack Kerouac

 
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This letter was only discovered after Brando died in July 2004. Helen Hall was tasked by auction house Christie’s to visit the actor’s home on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles and select property to include in an auction of his estate.

Hall spent around ten days at Brando’s house sifting through his personal effects “with a fine tooth comb.”  The most valuable thing she had found was an annotated copy of Brando’s script for The Godfather tucked away with all his other movie memorabilia in a bunker in the garden. Hall thought this was the best she would find. On her tenth day at the house, Hall and her team searched through the very last room on their list—Brando’s office.

Continues after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
J.G. Ballard: The first published profile of the author as a young student in 1951

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J.G. Ballard was a 20-year-old medical student in his second year at Cambridge University when he jointly won a crime story competition organized by the local student newspaper Varsity.

Ballard’s story “The Violent Noon” recounted the events of a violent and gory terrorist attack on a British officer and his family during the Malayan War. It has been described as a “Hemingwayesque pastiche” allegedly written to please the judges. According to “an an unsigned summary of the judges’ reasons for picking” Ballard’s story:

‘Violent Noon’ was the most mature story; it contains patches of high tension, the characters come to life, and the ending is brilliant in its cynicism. The author should, however, avoid a tendency to preach.

The Violent Noon” was Ballard’s first published work. When it appeared in Varsity on Saturday 26th May, 1951, the paper printed a profile of the author—which included Ballard’s first ever published interview:

J. Graham Ballard who shares the first prize of ten pounds with D. S. Birley in the “Varsity” Crime Story Competition is now in his second year at King’s and immersed in the less literary process of reading medicine.

He admitted to our reporter yesterday that he had in fact entered the competition more for the prize than anything else, although he had been encouraged to go on writing because of his success.

The idea for his short story which deals with the problem of Malayan terrorism, he informs us, he had been thinking over for some time before hearing of the competition.

He had, in addition to writing short stories, also planned “mammoth novels” which “never get beyond the first page.”

 
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What these “mammoth novels” were about one can now only imagine. It was four years since Ballard had returned to England from internment at a Japanese P.O.W. camp—the horrors of which were filtered through his work as he later said:

The experience of war is deeply corrupting. Anybody who witnesses years of brutality can’t help but lose a sense of the tragedy and mystery of death. I’m sure that happened to me. The 16-year-old who came to England after the war carried this freight of ‘matter-of-factness about death’. So spending two years dissecting cadavers was a way of reminding me of the reality of death itself, and gave me back a respect for life.

Ballard harbored plans to become a psychiatrist. But this was quickly dropped after his success with “The Violent Noon.” He quit his medical studies at Cambridge and enrolled at Queen Mary University, London to study English Literature.
 
More on young Ballard plus full documentary, after the jump….

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
‘Bond Girls’: Sexy color-drenched retro-style prints of the ladies of 007

Thunderball
A print of the 2008 book cover update to Ian Fleming’s 1961 novel, “Thunderball” by Michael Gillette.
 
These reconceptualized covers done for the 2008 reissue of all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels (including the collection of Fleming’s short stories from 1960, For Your Eyes Only) published by Penguin Books in the 1950s through the 1960s, are about as sweet as eye-candy can get. The punchy, psychedelic candy-colored covers by artist Michael Gillette featured in this post (which were printed in a limited run and signed by Gillette), can be had for $95 bucks a pop over at Gillette’s website. I don’t know about you, but I want them all.
 
The 2008 book cover update to Ian Fleming's 1956 novel, Diamonds Are  Forever by Michael Gillette
A print of the 2008 book cover update to Ian Fleming’s 1956 novel, “Diamonds Are Forever.”
 
The 2008 update for the cover of Ian Fleming's 1964 novel, You Only Live Twice by Michael Gillette
A print of the 2008 update for the cover of Ian Fleming’s 1964 novel, “You Only Live Twice.”
 
More Bond girls after the jump…

Posted by Cherrybomb | Leave a comment
‘The Bald Soprano’: Take a look at one of the most beautiful—and eccentric—books ever published
03.22.2016
06:40 pm

Topics:
Art
Books
Literature

Tags:
Eugène Ionesco
Massin


 
Playwright Eugène Ionesco was one of the founding fathers of the Theatre of the Absurd, a school defined by cultural historian Martin Esslin (in his influential 1960 book of the same title) as a genre which dramatized Albert Camus’s philosophy that life is inherently sans meaning. That our existence on Earth is both absurd and pointless. That we’re born into a godless world. We live. We die. Along the way we might do certain things—even perform acts of great compassion or heroism—but ultimately none of it really matters. Death swallows everything and everyone in the end.
 

 
While trying to learn English via the ASSiMiL method for teaching foreign languages (which requires phonetic memorization of mundane “conversational” sentences) Ionesco was inspired by the company’s book Anglais Sans Peine (“English Without Toil”) and the generic “characters” within it, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” to write his first play, La Cantatrice Chauve or The Bald Soprano. It was debuted in Paris in 1950 but initially not much of a success.
 

 
When the play opens, we meet Mr. and Mrs. Smith in their drab sitting room. He is hidden behind his newspaper, smoking a pipe and clicking his tongue. She is darning socks. After a long moment of “English silence,” Mrs. Smith announces:

“There, it’s nine o’clock. We’ve drunk the soup, and eaten the fish and chips and the English salad. The children have drunk English water. We’ve eaten well this evening. That’s because we live in the suburbs of London and because our name is Smith.”

 

 
Ionesco’s special talent was ridiculing authority figures, brutally portraying humankind’s insignificance and lampooning the banality of everyday communication. He would artfully employ clichés and witless truisms as dialogue. His characters often talk right past one another, if not simply shouting non sequiturs into the wind. No one is ever listening to what anyone else is saying in his plays.
 

 
The Bald Soprano was composed as a sort of continuous loop. The last scene contains stage instructions to begin the performance over again, from the very first line but with “the Martins” (the dinner guests of the Smiths) doing the lines that the Smiths had just said, and vice versa. And then repeat. And then repeat again. Ionesco’s point is that the characters and their banal, absurdist dialogue are interchangeable. None of it matters. Who cares?
 

 
The Bald Soprano has been continuously performed in France since 1957 at the Théâtre de la Huchette and due to the simplicity of the language lesson-level dialogue it has been translated into many, many languages and staged the world over. Indeed, it’s one of the most widely performed plays of all time.

Continues after the jump…

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
‘Mind Parasites’: The William S. Burroughs / Buzzcocks connection
02.05.2016
12:34 pm

Topics:
Literature
Music
Punk

Tags:
William S. Burroughs
Buzzcocks


 
A Burroughsian post for you all on the 102nd anniversary of William S. Burroughs’ birth…

“A Different Kind of Tension,” the antepenultimate song on the Buzzcocks’ album of the same name, can be hilarious or punishing, depending on the circumstances. Pete Shelley’s lyrics are a series of contradictory commands that alternate between your stereo speakers, coming faster and faster with each verse, and pretty soon, Shelley is simultaneously shouting “live” in your left ear and “die” in your right. On a lazy afternoon, it’s enough to make peach Cisco squirt from your nose, but in bumper-to-bumper traffic, you’re liable to start looking around for the Budd Dwyer exit.
 

 
Wikipedia claims that the song quotes William S. Burroughs, but that’s not quite right: it’s more a rewrite of Burroughs’ text than a quotation. Shelley, after all, is credited as the sole author of “A Different Kind of Tension,” whose lyrics are printed in parallel columns on the record’s three-color sleeve:

Wait here - Go there
Come in - Stay out
Be yourself - Be someone else
Obey the law - Break the law

Be ambitious - Be modest
Plan ahead - Be spontaneous
Decide for yourself - Listen to others
Save money - Spend money

Be good - Be evil
Be wise - Be foolish
Be safe - Be dangerous
Be satisfied - Be envious
Be honest - Be deceitful
Be faithful - Be perfidious
Be sane - Be mad
Be strong - Be weak
Be enigmatic - Be plain
Be aggressive - Be peaceful
Be brave - Be timid
Be humane - Be cruel
Be critical - Be appreciative
Be temperamental - Calm
Be sad - Be happy
Be normal - Be unusual

Stop - Go
Live - Die
Yes - No
Rebel - Submit
Right - Wrong
Sit down - Stand up
Create - Destroy
Accept - Reject
Talk - Silence
Speed up - Slow down
This way - That way
Right - Left
Present - Absent
Open - Closed
Entrance - Exit
Believe - Doubt

Truth - Lies
Escape - Meet
Love - Hate
Thank you - Flunk [actually “Fuck you”]
Clarify - Pollute
Simple - Complex
Nothing - Something
Stop - Go
Live - Die
Yes - No
Rebel - Submit
Right - Wrong
Sit down - Stand up
Create - Destroy
Accept - Reject
Talk - Silence


 

A 1969 review of The Mind Parasites by William “Borroughs” (larger)
 
The Buzzcocks had a thing for magazine reviews; they took their name from the last line of a review of the TV series Rock Follies (“Get a buzz, cock”), and, if memory serves, the phrase “a different kind of tension” itself comes from Jon Savage’s review of Love Bites in Sounds. For the sake of consistency, I’d like to think Shelley spotted Burroughs’ list of incompatible injunctions in the author’s 1969 review of Colin Wilson’s The Mind Parasites, which first ran in a New York underground newspaper called Rat and was reprinted that year in John Keel’s Anomaly. But Shelley is just as likely to have encountered Burroughs’ list in the CONTROL section of 1974’s The Job, or some other place Burroughs might have recontextualized these do’s and don’ts:

Stop. Go. Wait here. Go there. Come in. Stay out. Be a man. Be a woman. Be white. Be black. Live. Die. Yes. No. Do it now. Do it later. Be your real self. Be somebody else. Fight. Submit. Right. Wrong. Make a splendid impression. Make an awful impression. Sit down. Stand up. Take your hat off. Put your hat on. Create. Destroy. React. Ignore. Live now. Live in the past. Live in the future. Be ambitious. Be modest. Accept. Reject. Do more. Do less. Plan ahead. Be spontaneous. Decide for yourself. Listen to others. Talk. Be silent. Save money. Spend money. Speed up. Slow down. This way. That way. Right. Left. Present. Absent. Open. Closed. Up. Down. Enter. Exit. In. Out.

 

 
This isn’t quite “Choose life” from Trainspotting, if that’s what you’re thinking. Far from complaining about the modern world’s banality like Steve Martin’s Beat poet on Saturday Night Live (“Oh, Mr. Commuter! / Wash me not in your Mad Ave. paint-by-numbers soap…”), Burroughs was giving his readers detailed instructions in piercing the tedium of everyday life with “a technique for producing events and directing thought on a mass scale [that] is available to anyone with a portable tape recorder.” Burroughs goes on to explain in his Mind Parasites review how the “waking suggestion” technique of Dr. John Dent, whose apomorphine cure for heroin addiction he advocated, can be used for mind control:

These commands are constantly being imposed by the environment of modern life. If the suggestion tape contains the right phraseology, and listeners hear it in the right situation (while doing something else), they will be forced to obey the suggestion. It is like giving someone a sleeping pill, without his knowledge, and then suggesting sleep.

At the unconscious level, any contradictory suggestion produces a brief moment of disorientation, during which the suggestions take place. This is important to remember because this is something you can – in a pinch – employ yourself. (Con artists, spies, military strategists, and social climbers use such diversions to their advantage. Why can’t you?)

This moment of disorientation is not unknown to the human body, because contradictory suggestions are an integral function of human metabolism: “Sweat. Stop sweating. Salivate. Stop salivating. Pour adrenaline into the bloodstream. Counteract adrenaline with epinephrine.”

Since contradictory commands are enforced by the environment and the human body, contradictory commands are especially effective. All tape recording tricks are useful: speed up, slow down, overlay, run contradictory commands simultaneously, add superfluous “echo” recordings for large spaces, etc.

Continues after the jump…

Posted by Oliver Hall | Leave a comment
‘N for Nonsense’: William S. Burroughs endorses Mr. Peanut for mayor, 1974
02.03.2016
01:04 pm

Topics:
Literature
Politics

Tags:
William S. Burroughs
Mr. Peanut


 
On November 20, 1974, the city of Vancouver held its civic election, which included the heart-palpitating race for alderman as well as positions on the parks board and the school board. The mayoral election was part of the slate that year, and that race included an unusual candidate who never uttered a single word, preferring the universal medium of tap dance for communication.

That candidate was Mr. Peanut, and wherever he went a group of young women called the “Peanettes” would sing “Peanuts from Heaven,” based on “Pennies from Heaven,” the Depression-era song by Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke. The “Peanettes” would hold up letters like spectators at a sporting event spelling out P-E-A-N-U-T, which apparently was a mnemonic device for the following: “P for performance, E for elegance, A for art, N for nonsense, U for uniqueness, and T for talent.”
 

 
Mr. Peanut’s platform included a couple of sensible proposals, including putting a hiring freeze on government employees until the city’s population became larger, and a couple that were a bit less serious, like a system similar to a lending library for galoshes and umbrellas, which are only needed when it rains. He had a cumbersome slogan reminiscent of some 19th-century art movement, which ran “Life was politics in the last decade; life will be art in the next decade.”
 

 
Mr. Peanut was actually a Berlin-based performance artist named Vincent Trasov, who had adopted the corporate mascot as his persona a few years earlier. He had a spokesman named John Mitchell accompany him to all public events during the campaign to do his talking for him. The author of Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs, happened to visit Vancouver while the campaign was happening, so he gave Mr. Peanut his endorsement:
 

I would like to take this opportunity to endorse the candidacy of Mr. Peanut for mayor of Vancouver. Mr. Peanut is running on the art platform, and art is the creation of illusion. Since the inexorable logic of reality has created nothing but insolvable problems, it is now time for illusion to take over. And there can only be one illogical candidate—Mr. Peanut.

 
Joining Burroughs in endorsing Mr. Peanut was the mayor of Kansas City, a Democrat named Charles B. Wheeler Jr., who sent him a letter of support. Voters wishing to express their preference Mr. Peanut were obliged to select the candidate’s actual name from a list. “Vincent Trasov” received 2,685 votes out of 78,925 votes cast, netting him a 3.4% share of the vote, higher than Ralph Nader’s percentage in the 2000 election for president in the United States. Trasov/Peanut finished fourth, but it’s easy to imagine that if the words “Mr. Peanut” had been permitted to appear on the ballot, he might have garnered a few more points.
 
Continues after the jump…

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
‘Californium’: Finally, the ultimate video game tribute to the worlds of Philip K. Dick
01.21.2016
01:42 pm

Topics:
Games
Literature
Science/Tech

Tags:
Philip K. Dick
Californium


 
When you go to the website for Californium, the first words you see are “If you find this world bad, you should see some of the others,” which is the title of a talk Philip K. Dick gave in France in 1977.

Californium is a game produced by Darjeeling and Nova Production, and published by ARTE, the Strasbourg-based French-German TV channel dedicated to the arts. It seems exceedingly likely that this game will prove to be the most sustained tribute to the works of Philip K. Dick in the video game idiom.

Both movies and video games have proven fertile settings for Dick’s apocalyptic visions, even if the path from book to final product has often been treacherous. From Blade Runner and Total Recall to The Adjustment Bureau, there seems to be no Dick work that can’t have its title changed on the way to becoming a major motion picture (okay, okay, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly kept their original names, anyway). As for video games, John Saavedra argues that Eidos, makers of Deus Ex, might just be “Phillip K Dick’s greatest students.”
 

 
The tagline for the game is “Explore the worlds of Californium, a first person exploration game where you are a writer trapped into shifting realities. Will you find what’s behind the simulacra?” which puts us squarely in that familiar PKD “Got-here-30-years-before-The-Matrix” world in which every innocuous American surface is but cloak for a more terrifying reality.

For the position of as art director, the developers have chosen Olivier Bonhomme to help create the distinctive feel of a Philip K. Dick book.

Here’s the “synopsis” for the game:
 

Berkeley, 1967. You are Elvin Green, a writer whose career is not better than his sentimental life. Besides, the day starts badly : your wife Thea left you a break up letter. As for Eddy, your editor, he summons you : “you are a writer who does not write”—you should find yourself another editor. Your world is falling apart. Too much acid and cheap booze ? Too many sleepless nights stuck to your typewriter, powerless to tackle your first novel ? Your brain perceives a signal, the Theta—which seems connected to your collapsing emotional state—shows that there could be a way out: this world is unstable, you can extract yourself from it and thus access another reality! You have nothing to lose!

 
Californium is expected to be available for the PC in a few months.

Here’s a teaser video for the game followed by several mouth-watering screenshots:

 

 

 
More after the jump…

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
Incredibly detailed 3-D rendering of the book illustration that gave every kid nightmares


 
If you grew up with the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book series, you are well-aware of the nightmares generated by the creeptastic illustrations of Stephen Gammell. The popular series’ “tales of eerie horror and dark revenge” are brought to life by Gammell’s macabre and disturbing illustrations—which are indeed much more frightening than the stories themselves.
 

Illustrations by Gammell
 
Artist Michael Perry recently uploaded photos of a scuplture he designed that should be familiar to anyone traumatized by Gammell’s illustrations. It’s an intricate 3-D rendering of the bizarre and surreal cover from the first book in that series.
 

 

 
It was recently announced that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is being developed as a film project by Guillermo del Toro. Perhaps Perry has a future with the production in bringing those terrifying illustrations to life?
 

 

 
More after the jump, including the baby from David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’...

Posted by Christopher Bickel | Leave a comment
Charles Dickens & The Train of Death: The rail crash behind the classic ghost story ‘The Signal-Man’
01.15.2016
10:33 am

Topics:
Books
Literature
Occult
Television

Tags:
Charles Dickens
ghosts

BosignalB.jpg
 
In his later years, Charles Dickens often suffered from siderodromophobia—a fear of train travel—caused by his involvement in a railway crash in 1865. If you suffer from say, a fear of flying, then you will appreciate the dread Dickens sometimes endured when he traveled by train thereafter—panic, foreboding, white knuckle terror. His son later claimed that Dickens never fully recovered from the experience and he died exactly five years to the day of the accident.

The Staplehurst rail crash occurred at a viaduct on the South Eastern Railway linking London to the coastal town of Folkestone, at 3:13pm on June 9th, 1865. A section of rail track had been removed. The foreman in charge of replacing the track misread the train timetable—believing his crew had sufficient time to finish the job before the arrival of the next train. His mistake had tragic consequences.
 
001stapcrashtar.jpg
Illustration of the Staplehurst train wreck.
 
Apart from the trauma, the accident had serious implications for Dickens as he was accompanying his mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother to Folkestone where they were to catch a boat back to France.

Long before the 50-Mile Rule—which suggests one should never an affair with someone within a 50 mile radius of home—Dickens had been careful to keep the 27-year-old Ellen out of the public eye in France to avoid any possibility of discovery by his wife or by a prying press. The three were sitting in the first carriage when the train jumped the tracks and crashed over the side of a viaduct. Ten passengers were killed, 40 more were injured.
 
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Photograph of the accident.
 
Ensuring Ellen and her mother were safe, Dickens busied himself aiding the injured and the dying. He described the accident in a letter to his old schoolfriend Thomas Mitton on June 13th, 1865:

My dear Mitton,

I should have written to you yesterday or the day before, if I had been quite up to writing. I am a little shaken, not by the beating and dragging of the carriage in which I was, but by the hard work afterwards in getting out the dying and dead, which was most horrible.

I was in the only carriage that did not go over into the stream. It was caught upon the turn by some of the ruin of the bridge, and hung suspended and balanced in an apparently impossible manner. Two ladies were my fellow passengers; an old one, and a young one. This is exactly what passed: you may judge from it the precise length of the suspense. Suddenly we were off the rail and beating the ground as the car of a half emptied balloon might. The old lady cried out “My God!” and the young one screamed.

I caught hold of them both (the old lady sat opposite, and the young one on my left) and said: “We can’t help ourselves, but we can be quiet and composed. Pray don’t cry out.” The old lady immediately answered, “Thank you. Rely upon me. Upon my soul, I will be quiet.” The young lady said in a frantic way, “Let us join hands and die friends.” We were then all tilted down together in a corner of the carriage, and stopped. I said to them thereupon: “You may be sure nothing worse can happen. Our danger must be over. Will you remain here without stirring, while I get out of the window?” They both answered quite collectedly, “Yes,” and I got out without the least notion of what had happened.

Fortunately, I got out with great caution and stood upon the step. Looking down, I saw the bridge gone and nothing below me but the line of the rail. Some people in the two other compartments were madly trying to plunge out of the window, and had no idea there was an open swampy field 15 feet down below them and nothing else! The two guards (one with his face cut) were running up and down on the down side of the bridge (which was not torn up) quite wildly. I called out to them “Look at me. Do stop an instant and look at me, and tell me whether you don’t know me.” One of them answered, “We know you very well, Mr Dickens.” “Then,” I said, “my good fellow for God’s sake give me your key, and send one of those labourers here, and I’ll empty this carriage.”

We did it quite safely, by means of a plank or two and when it was done I saw all the rest of the train except the two baggage cars down in the stream. I got into the carriage again for my brandy flask, took off my travelling hat for a basin, climbed down the brickwork, and filled my hat with water. Suddenly I came upon a staggering man covered with blood (I think he must have been flung clean out of his carriage) with such a frightful cut across the skull that I couldn’t bear to look at him. I poured some water over his face, and gave him some to drink, and gave him some brandy, and laid him down on the grass, and he said, “I am gone”, and died afterwards.

Then I stumbled over a lady lying on her back against a little pollard tree, with the blood streaming over her face (which was lead colour) in a number of distinct little streams from the head. I asked her if she could swallow a little brandy, and she just nodded, and I gave her some and left her for somebody else. The next time I passed her, she was dead.

 
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Front cover of ‘London Illustrated’ showing Dickens tending to the injured.
 
The accident caused Dickens to lose his voice for two weeks, and he was often visibly panicked on train journeys after that—on one occasion hurling himself to the floor of the carriage convinced another crash was about to take place. However, he was not a man to waste his own experience—no matter how painful—and he used the events in his ghost story The Signal-Man—one of literature’s most famous supernatural tales.

The Signal-Man tells the story of an encounter with a signalman who tells the unnamed narrator of his haunting by ghostly premonitions prior to a series of train accidents. The story formed part of Dickens’ Mugby Junction series of stories. It is a subtle and beautifully told tale, and was adapted by the BBC in 1976 for Ghost Story, starring Denholm Elliott and Bernard Lloyd. Elliott is perfect as the man haunted by a ghostly visitor, whose message he tries to understand.

Continues after the jump…

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