SLEEP NO MORE
SLEEP NO MORE by L.T.C. ROLT; edited by Christopher Roden Ash-Tree Press, 1996; xx + 172 pp; £19,00 plus p&p; ISBN 1-8995S2-09-S
Here is a very worthwhile reissue of a wonderful story collection. Previously confined to the booksellers' 'sought after but scarce' category, Sleep No More was originally published by Constable in 1948. Despite considerable praise from author-publisher Michael Sadleir and others, it did not sell well and was only ever reprinted once - by Harvester in 1975. This handsome and welcome new edition not only includes Rolt’s original set of stories from the 1930s and 1940s, but also (despite its subtitle Twelve Stories of the Supernatural ) adds his two much later - and indeed final - macabre offerings The Shouting' and ‘The House of Vengeance'. Rolt's fascinating 1950s essay ‘The Passing of the Ghost Story' is a bonus, too, and thus for the first time we have all his writings on the supernatural collected in one volume. Christopher Roden's introduction is most informative and illuminating, white Hugh Lamb - to whose friendly persistence as anthologist we owe the appearance in print of that last pair of stories - contributes a short piece of reminiscence about their author.
It should by now be clear, and not only because of all the energy and care that has gone into this fine production, that Lionel Thomas Caswell Rolt (1910-1974) was an original, whose work merits wider appreciation, in his generally excellent Elegant Nightmares (1978), the American critic Jack Sullivan grouped Rolt with various "undeservedly obscure writers... who follow [M.R] James's example", and then consigned him to an (albeit perceptive) footnote: "An engineer by profession, Rolt is a master of situations involving haunted mines, canals and various kinds of machinery. Especially effective is 'Hawley Bank Foundry', a tale which demonstrates that terror can emerge from the most unlikely settings". True enough, as far as it goes, though Sullivan himself, when later editing the enormous Penguin Ecyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural (1986) does give Rolt a bit more space and justice. Sleep No More he deems "an exceptionally original collection", with an early tale, ‘The Mine', "one of the most perfect dialect stories... in ghost fiction". But Sullivan inadvertently underlines his own earlier point about obscurity, for it's assumed - in the 1980s - that Rolt is still alive!
Rolt does seem to have led a full and wide-ranging life, however, and the great variety of his interests and numerous publications (as Roden, Mike Ashley and others have noted) is impressive. Perhaps that's why he had time for only one macabre collection, but if will certainly live on for a white yet in its latest incarnation. Readers of this journal may not need reminding that Rolt - together with that other master of the post-war British macabre story, Robert Aickman - helped set up the Inland Waterways Association. But it's nicely appropriate that Rolt had a canal boat himself and used his experience to such good eerie effect In 'Bosworth Summit Pound', By contrast, the racing-motoring background (another speciality of Rolt's) doesn't come off nearly so well in ‘The New Corner', A couple of the shorter stories, too, 'World's End' and 'Hear Not My Steps', seem slight, though nonetheless worth reading. In these, Rolt needs rather more descriptive space than he allows himself, in order to establish the brooding atmosphere of menace so well handled elsewhere. Everyone will have their particular favourites; Rolt's own was 'Music Hath Charms' - a gruesome fable set in Cornwall - whose deadly musical box is a memorable piece of invention. I myself found most chilling two stories with Welsh settings I happen to know - 'Cwm Garon and ‘The House of Vengeance'- both of which use their particular landscapes to haunting and dreadful effect indeed.
It's anyhow good to have such elegantly weird tales available again, along with Rolt’s own rare reflections on the ghost story, which are judicious and invaluable. He discusses M.R. James's rescue "from unmerited obscurity" of Le Fanu, "the first of the masters" - and how James himself "freely acknowledged his own debt" to that Irish genius. In Sleep No More, Rolt in turn pays off his debt, to James, and thereby adds a quiet yet grimly distinctive voice to the great tradition of supernatural fiction.