By way of ensuring no offence to any locals who, in real life, live in the places mentioned in Rolt’s collection of sometimes strange, sometimes outrightly terrifying tales, an ‘Author’s Note’ claims that “…I do not attribute to such places or to their inhabitants any supernatural or sinister quality”. This is the first instance of Rolt’s key theme throughout this small but beautifully crafted set of “Railway, Canal and Other Stories of The Supernatural”; that of humour. Rolt knew his rural Britain, no doubt about it. His work with conservation and the Inland Waterways Association (in which he worked alongside, then royally fell out with, Robert Aickman) earned him much national and academic acclaim, and his seminal account of life on the English waterways, Narrow Boat (1944), virtually single-handedly instigated a belated resurgence in interest in England’s proud and lengthy canal history. Rolt toured England and Wales at a barge’s pace, taking in everything passionately and emphatically.
Such knowledge of the particular atmospheres and idiosyncracies of English and Welsh landscapes means that Rolt’s tales are instantly recognisable and authentic in setting. Whether they carry the actual name of their topographical inspiration, or just a general locational feel, these tales always start off as familiar and comfortable as sitting next to a warm pub fireplace during the throes of winter, and it is this degree of pleasantness which Rolt subverts slowly but surely as these stories progress. The result is, on the one hand, certainly quite unnerving, and on the other hand often very funny. The tales in Sleep No More provide the precursor for much rural folk-horror to come (just picture films like An American Werewolf in London (1981), or The Wicker Man (1973), or David Pinner’s Wicker Man-inspiring novel, Ritual (1967) after one or two of Rolt’s tales like Cwm Garon, or The Mine). Ghost stories with a jet-black humour, where the entertainment factor simply adds to the unease of the narrative: should I find this funny or should I take this seriously?
In the case of much rural supernatural fiction, it’s really about whether or not the reader personally finds such locations unnerving in the first place. Cwm Garon is a fictional representation of somewhere recognisable to any hikers; a place of natural wonderment but also a place of isolation if you’re alone. The Welsh mountains are known for encroaching and persistent mist (visual challenges), silence (aural deprivation) and scale (geographical disorientation). Any of these factors could make the imagination run riot if you were to allow it. Rolt does just this; what begins as a story about one man conquering the lonesome, challenging mountain (even on a weekend break away from urban and mundane) becomes a story of misunderstanding, accidental discovery, and ancient strangeness. By the end, such is the thoroughly subverted focus of the tale that the final lines just seem very funny.
In this way, Rolt’s tales are a commentary on subjective reverence, or the mystification, that comes with humanity’s attitudes to natural world. Rolt spent his life helping to rebuild the Inland Waterways network. This couldn’t have been done by simply telling people to go out on canal boats more. It had to be reformed, maintained and protected; infrastructure had to be put in place to ensure continued protection of what had been achieved. It was all hard graft, but clearly for Rolt, completely worth it. The result is a set of publically accessible and desirable waterways snaking all over England. It’s an industry that was once industrial, but is now one of leisure as well.
Rolt’s commitment and passion to the Waterways network was his commitment to a dialogue between nature and humanity. It is this acquired knowledge and sensitivity that lends Sleep No More a sense of actual place, of moving water, and of the error of assumption. But this is why the stories are ultimately amusing rather than solemn or grave; nature is out there to be revered of course, but it should also be embraced as a source of joy, even in embracing that which may seem beyond our comprehension.